I frequently get asked “Why Catholic?” by diverse self-proclaimed demographics; Evangelical Protestants, Rad Trads, and that sector of atheists who can be just as either/or in thinking as religious fundamentalists. I can think of no more apt and meaningful a symbol than Mozart as an initial gateway as a response to that question, although there is more to it than that.
My introduction to artmusic was at a young age and while I started off with the standards (i.e. Beethoven and Wagner), by my late teens and early twenties, I was venturing into the more modern terrain of Bruckner, Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartok, Boulez, Xenakis, Feldman, and Nono. At 55, I’ve gone back primarily to the one constant throughout my life; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I have no greater love in music than Mozart, but he is merely music to the degree that the Grand Canyon is merely a rock. It’s no accident that theologians Karl Barth and Hans Kung, along with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, wrote extensively on Mozart. The famous film on Mozart seems to pooh pooh his religiosity. It’s an excellent film that otherwise drops the ball on that and errs in denying us a vital and profound dimension to Mozart and his art. Barth, a Protestant, struggled and was baffled by Mozart’s passionate Catholicism and disdain for Protestantism (a disdain that Michelangelo shared), which prompted a loving and respectful laugh from Merton and Kung. Perhaps the film (and the play it was based off) failed to look at Mozart’s devotion due to being sidetracked by his excesses and surface immorality (the composer of Don Giovanni did know of what he wrote). Yet, despite his personal shortcomings, what we find in Mozart’s music and letters is a deeply ethical voice (ethics ((the Golden Rule)) being different than morals). He was consistently frustrated by his inability to financially provide for his children and wife, who he loved and was devoted to sacramentally, but through it all he did what he was here to do in his brief life; There has never been a more aesthetically Catholic composer. Mozart was Catholic in that he was stubbornly focused, despite the ugliness in people and life that threatened to engulf him, to create a world of immeasurably profound beauty. I relate or aspire to that, which is perhaps why, as I am middle-aged, I spend much time with the beauty of Mozart. He had the authentic pulse of Catholicism in that he could not penetrate the status quo and a deeper Catholicism is radically removed from bourgeoisie precepts. Rad Trads tend to speak through a dualistic model rather than a unitive model, which is what Catholicism actually is. Like super patriots (another cult) and extremist right-wingers (btw, non-religious radical right are even worse than the religious right), they will inevitably suggest leaving the Church when not in agreement with them. No, because to do so would inevitably confirm that it is their Church alone.
Some of the greatest Catholic artists were, in fact, renegades (Caravaggio, Paul Gauguin, Gustav Mahler, Gerard Manly Hopkins, and Flannery O’ Connor being examples) producing work of shattering beauty. Charlie Chaplin, Luis Bunuel, Pablo Picasso, and Pierre Boulez were self-proclaimed atheists. Yet, the Vatican declared Chaplin’s Tramp as the most religious of all cinematic figures. Neither Orson Welles nor Andrei Tarkovsky accepted Bunuel’s claim, and rightly assessed him as a deeply religious filmmaker. Belatedly, art historians are seeing the depth of Picasso’s religiosity in his work. Boulez was often at his most inspired in responses to his familial Catholicism (i.e. Rituel and Repons). It was these artists who left the earliest and most lasting impressions on me; impressions in which I found an identification point. Often, I have defensively stated that I am Catholic because I am an artist, not vice versa. Yet, I also recall a comment made by my late aunt Greta, who upon learning that I had converted, said (to my Father), “You won’t understand this, but your son was born Catholic.” She may have had a point because even though she took me to my first Catholic parish, my world was already filled with the artists above, because they were brothers and sisters to me.
The remainder of this amounts to an unpacking, in part, because my novel, Brother Cobweb is going to be published next April. When I first submitted the novel (which turned out to be a rough draft… many thanks to my editor) I attached the usual synopsis, along with intro and was frank in saying: “I took a pair of brass knuckles to the Midwestern religious right evangelical church.” One potential publisher wrote back (after reading), “no, not brass knuckles, you napalmed them.”
Of course, we all tend to make quick either/or assumptions and I’ve often found that the predictable dull assumption that I receive, from a quick glance at the novel synopsis or the Brother Cobweb character that I perform (at the House of Shadows) or some of my art, is that I’m an extreme leftist atheist.
No. Because both belief and unbelief are ultimately abstractions for me. I resist both words and the implications they are saddled with. Too, whether we admit it or not, most of us are both progressive and conservative in areas, so those categories are given to extremisms and are rendered hopelessly two-dimensional.
I refer to some of my art, although by no means all of it, as trench theology; a holding to accountability, akin to the statement made by the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner: “The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim Him with their mouths, but deny Him with their actions is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.” I repeatedly had that reaction myself long before I ever heard of Rahner. As an early teen, my mother’s evangelical church forced me to read the gospels and, with me, it was the biggest mistake they made because this man who people call Christ that I discovered in the Gospels; that was not them. Worse, through their actions, abuses, and verbiage, they had kept Him from me. Him, I am all about. I wasn’t at first, despising the hackneyed picture of Him as a thug whose followers I had to dumb down to in order to survive. Due to the intensity of their tactics and relentless hypocrisies, that caricature of him was ingrained, and even after plunging into the gospels myself, it took decades of struggling, which included a period of atheism, to eradicate the parody.
I recently read an article in which the writer took some bishops to task and he conjectured that they do know the words of Christ. Now, I am hardly a sola scriptura kind of guy and when you hear that phrase: “The Bible came out of the Church. The Church did not come out of the Bible,” it’s true and that’s a historical fact. Cardinal Newman added, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” That’s an authentic statement as well, but as Paul Harvey used to say, “And now the rest of the story.” Because even the Church came out of something and I’m not referring per se to our Semitic origins, although we should be astutely aware and respectful of that. Rather, I am referring to what the Gospel According to John says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Church sprang from Christ and Christ was Word.
Let’s divorce ourselves for a moment from all that redemption language because far too many use it as a crutch to justify not Living it and a Word has to be Living. In his short sojourn on this planet, Christ said a lot of Words and it is a scandal that those Words are not Living in the hearts, minds, and Spirit of so many who profess him, but He also predicted this. How can one profess Him and yet not abide by what He taught, or heed His warning? Matthew twenty five is clear: “I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was thirsty and you did not give me drink. I was an immigrant and you did not take me in. I was naked and you did not clothe me: sick and in prison and you did not give me medicine and visit me.’ And they asked Him, ‘when did we do this to thee?’ and he replied, ‘ Amen, I say to you, when you did it not to the least of these, neither did you do it to me.” Yet, over the years, I have heard alleged Christians attempt to spin doctor that with a vapid, “well, he meant members of the Church.” Mind you also, these tend to be Christians who mantle the facade of taking everything at face value… until it becomes a mirror. These self-professed Christians will go to any length in order to weasel out of Matthew 25 and, despite what they claim, they are far more atheistic in practice than any atheist.
No, we cannot dodge or spin doctor Matthew 25, the Beatitudes, the Good Samaritan, the Golden Rule, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the story of the Rich young ruler, His discourses on turning the other cheek, paying taxes, the Prodigal Son, His encounters with the adulteress, the Samaritan woman at the well, the Centurion and his pais, the prostitute who washed His feet, or His Mother’s Magnificat and cling to a perverse and farcical prosperity gospel, bigotries, sexism, or judgments.
Now, the next paint-by-number spin doctoring would be to claim that such a critical tone is in itself judgmental. Perhaps, but we need to recall that Christ did not condemn the adulteress. The thief by his side was, theoretically speaking, the first Christian. As a matter of fact, the only sins that Christ consistently called out were hypocrisy and avarice and he judged judgmentalism. When reflecting on that, I am reminded of the deist philosopher Jacques Ellul and his assertion that morality is often seen today through a solely erroneous patristic filter because the lucid portrait we receive of the Gospel’s Christ is that he was as maternal as he was paternal. His Beatitudes read as if spoken by the offspring of the woman who authored the Magnificat. He was influenced by Her, obeyed Her at Cana, just as He obeyed His Father in the Garden, which renders some Protestant disrespect (and often contempt) for Her as tragic and nonsensical. We can no more separate Christ from His Mother than we can separate Him from His Father. Christ is unique among religious figures in that He treated women on a plane equal to men. In the gospel narrative, Post-Resurrection, He chose to reveal Himself first to a woman. No First Testament figure, or even Buddha, viewed women as equals to men. How then did Christianity get this so wrong?
With the Reformation, Protestants, across the board, threw out the Mother in their diminishment of Her, along with the female saints, thus rendering the Holy Family a dysfunctional one. The argument might be (and is frequently) made that some Protestant sects do have women clergy. That is true and should be commended, but clergy come and go. Symbols remain and it’s far more important and influential to retain those symbols.
Even the Post-Vatican II Church has slipped in this to a degree. In the name of ecumenicism, it has subdued the Maternal images. It did so out of sensitivity to Protestantism because nothing is more provocative than the maternal, especially here in the States. However, that is sloppy ecumenicism; holstering one of our most defining and edifying spiritual colors. Far too many post-Vatican II churches have lost the identity of the maternal and without the pronounced maternal, it is an anemic temple. Indeed, one would be pressed to feel it a temple at all because in the place of that is something akin to a bland basketball court where one can no longer walk in on a given Sunday and behold a Sea of Rosaries. The Rosary is a prism of the Christ consciousness and without it, we lose a vital facet of Him.
Regarding Christ Himself; it is becoming increasingly common among fundamentalist atheists to deny even His historical existence. They will often point to narrative “errors” in the Gospels, along with vignettes that clearly utilized preexisting folklore symbology (i.e. the shepherd). My first response to that will echo the late (and vastly underrated) Fr. Andrew Greeley who, upon hearing the venerable biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown debating with Hans Kung over the historicity of a gospel passage, Greeley asked: “Who cares?” Greeley, like Thomas Merton and Cardinal Newman, had the pulse of the Catholic imagination. Too, we have to realize that the way people wrote then is not beholding to our rules of writing. For us, it is either historical or myth, non-fiction or fiction. It has to be an A-Z linear narrative. That is not the way ancient writers penned narratives. It was common to mix historical with folklore, myth, symbology, metaphors, and poetry into a single narrative. Yes, there are inconsistences in the light of face value literalness, despite what biblical inerrancy advocates dishonestly claim. Gospels will describe certain incidents differently. For instance, one describes two possessed men and a lake. Another describes one possessed man and a river. If anything, that actually lends credence to something historical behind it; like two witnesses to an auto accident recalling details differently. We’ve all heard the asinine response, “Sometimes, you just gotta believe,” followed by “It was Holy Spirit inspired.” Even the Spirit has to be filtered through human hands and those replies do not wash, especially (and understandably) with each succeeding generation, who is less apt to dumb down. Pat Robertson, of all people, warned his followers, “If you continue to deny evolution, you’re going to lose your children.” They will not heed his warning and will lose them. Yes, they are that ignorant.
It does not matter how much of a given gospel narrative really happened (which is one of the most sophomoric of questions). What matters is the point behind it, to see it contextually and as a part of the whole. All the time we see questionable characters using a passage, divorced from what came before or after, to justify their agenda. A good way to gauge a Christ passage is to ask oneself, does it coincide with his sayings, teachings, and themes elsewhere? If it does not, then we are forced to dive contextually deeper. We may find that Christ is indeed consistent, but he is no simpleton, despite claims made by some that the bible is easy to understand. That is called denial. No it is not an easy or satisfying read and even His apostles complained, asking Him to be more straightforward, less allegorical. He had none of that, chastised them their laziness, and made them work for it.
Still, we can debate for half of forever on how much is real or historicity. I went through periods where I did. However, a few things kept coming back; this Man Christ was conceived out of wedlock (a death sentence at the time), was born in poverty, never traveled (that we know of) more than 100 miles past the place of His birth, never wrote a word, died in poverty, in His thirties, and was executed as a criminal (the only major religious figure to be murdered). The odds that we would still be talking about him 2,000 years later are virtually impossible, unless there’s something to it. If we are honest, we have to admit, since we are not eyewitnesses, that we don’t fully know, but faith, so to speak, lies in recognizing that there has to be something to it.
Why hold onto it? Because He is the most remarkable of all models, inspiring the likes of such diverse mystics as Paul, Augustine, Francis, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, the Little Flower, and Martin Luther King. In that phrase; fully man and fully God we find a connection to Christ’ two rules: Love God with all your heart, love your fellow man as yourself. They are inseparable. He had human complexities. We can turn to the man who spoke of The Least of These, the man who said, Leave her alone, the forgiver of the adulteress, His disregard for money, and, if we divorced all this from Him historically, we would likely label him a liberal today. However, we can also look at His discourses on the sanctity of Life and marriage, along with his ironclad rejection of divorce and would label him a conservative. The historical or gospel Christ never heard the terms liberal and conservative. Nor would he have wasted time on our silly labels. His law was consistent : unconditional Love and so, yes, He would be anti-guns (turn the other cheek), pro-immigration, anti-war, anti-divorce, anti-abortion, anti-narcissism, anti-unfettered Capitalism (Acts 2-5), pro-health care and he would reiterate, “for those who harm these little ones, it would be better had they never been born” and he would be consistent, as he was on this planet, in calling out the judges (plank meet splinter).
Again, people will take a passage out of context to dispute what He said, to pervert it in order to justify their failure to practice what they preach. Recall though that Paul’s attitude, when confronted by scripture thumpers of the period, was, “You can quote scripture all you want. I don’t care. I am about Christ.” Christ never said, “Worship Me.” He said : “Follow Me” AKA “Do as I Do.” Paul’s attitude is one to model, even in how we approach Paul, or at least the Paul of the first seven letters (I agree with modern biblical scholars that these are likely the only authentic Paul).
For those who complain about Pope Francis being political, one need only dive into scripture to refute those smoke screens because John the Baptist was political, Jesus of Nazareth was political (and he messed with the money system, which is what got Him killed), Paul was political. These were the original social justice warriors. Whoever thought that being an advocate of social justice would be considered a slur? I call them smoke screens because that is what they are and accusations are used against this pope, usually with the yawn-inducing comment, “why isn’t he preaching Jesus instead of involving himself in politics and World affairs?” Of course, we never heard Francis’ critics complain when his two predecessors did the same. Because, like those models above, Francis is living it by being part of this world, aspiring to be a caretaker. The reason for those accusations are oh so diaphanous, except to the most dishonest. Most of what Francis teaches and speaks has been taught before, but his language is new and contemporary. It should be. At the end of John, we hear the phrase, “Go and spread the Good News.” News is always new and nothing provokes rad trads more than something new. It provokes them because they have put an ism (traditionalism) above the Word. They have made a cult of it and will usually quote Pius (not Christ) to justify their cultism. I belonged to a Facebook group that was overtaken by rad trads and they were (rightly) criticizing Pope Francis’ handling of the abuse crisis, but they were taking it to the point of labeling him a heretic. When I spoke up and reminded them that he inherited this mess from his predecessors, they became evasive and threw a blanket over it. Not appeasing them, I pressed on and directly asked why they had not criticized JPII and BXVI to the disrespectful degree they do Francis. I’ll give credit where credit is due I suppose because they were honest when they said that they let JPII and BXVI off the hook because they were traditional enough and therefore not heretics. They would not afford Francis this because he was (in their words) a modernist. So, I asked: “In other words, if a pope is traditional enough for you, you will sweep the abuse under the rug?” They flat out answered, “Yes.” I think I was booted out the same day (and put that on my resume of accomplishments).
So, Why then the Church?
Because the Word said: “Even the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” Time and again, people have proclaimed the death of the Church, only to discover that is a premature obituary. We can (rightly) point to the abusers (God knows I have), but with the awareness that the gates of Hell often come from within and it has been that way from day one. All Christ’ apostles denied Him and fell short. One betrayed Him. If we were to deny Christ, the religion, and the Church due to countless Judases, then the religion would not have survived the physical life of Christ. The Reformation would have been theoretically necessary, if the reformers had not merely repeated the same mistakes, even surpassing the mistakes of their models. We see it still today with 40,000 plus Protestant denominations and New Age groups (who tend to bandy about that vapid ‘we’re spiritual not religious trendy catchphrase) being as guilty of tribalism and ethical bankruptcy as those they have long criticized (perhaps even more so. Anne Rice, who did leave the Church, once said ‘The Catholic Church is the only church that strives for holiness, which is why it falls down so much.’) Although it will not look like it to those on the outside, there is an edifiying freedom in the structure of the Church, even when we, as individuals and members of its body, find ourselves at odds with those who deem themselves our shepherds (and to them, I would counter that Beethoven’s Fidelio and Mozart’s sense of intimacy convey the importance of the individual over the structure while being children of the structure).
We must indeed hold the hypocrisy, the I, Me, Mine narcissism, and materialism to accountability and there is nothing hypocrites hate more than their hypocrisy exposed. They will, at best, ignore being called out. At worst, they will prepare the fire and stake. Yet, we are guilty ourselves if we do not hold them and ourselves accountable (as scripture says). When we fail to do so, we are complicit in creating prodigals through our neglect, indifference, and abuses. We keep Christ from them. We are seeing it more and more. Millennials are, to a broad degree, rejecting religion. A priest I once knew said that a Satanic theology transforms Christ into the quintessential Pharisee, making him so pedestaled, so pretty, so perfect that no one can touch him (or his Church). It is easy to be seduced by such false tinseled beauty. To a large degree, we were and our successors see and find our actions repugnant.
Rahner said: “the future Christian will be a mystic or he will not be Christian at all.” He was right and that is vital. So too is trench theology. Both are essential to an authentic Catholic path.
Hence, my contribution called Brother Cobweb and why I am Catholic.