Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Catholic Church Does the Canonization Two-Step, Or "Two, Four, Six, Eight: Time to Transubstantiate!"

The best definition is still John Donne's in his poem, "The Canonization," Donne being after all Catholic (although a reluctant Anglican priest) plus great-great nephew of the Catholic martyr Thomas More.  For Donne, a canonization is all about love, and he means a love that is passionate, sexual, and loyal:

FOR God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love ;
    Or chide my palsy, or my gout ;
    My five gray hairs, or ruin'd fortune flout ;
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve ;
        Take you a course, get you a place,
        Observe his Honour, or his Grace ;
Or the king's real, or his stamp'd face
    Contemplate ; what you will, approve,
    So you will let me love. 

Alas ! alas ! who's injured by my love?
    What merchant's ships have my sighs drown'd?
    Who says my tears have overflow'd his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
        When did the heats which my veins fill
        Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
    Litigious men, which quarrels move,
    Though she and I do love. 

Call us what you will, we are made such by love ;
    Call her one, me another fly,
    We're tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us find th' eagle and the dove.
        The phoenix riddle hath more wit
        By us ; we two being one, are it ;
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
    We die and rise the same, and prove
    Mysterious by this love. 

We can die by it, if not live by love,
    And if unfit for tomb or hearse
    Our legend be, it will be fit for verse ;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
        We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms ;
        As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
    And by these hymns, all shall approve
    Us canonized for love ; 

And thus invoke us, "You, whom reverend love
    Made one another's hermitage ;
    You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage ;
Who did the whole world's soul contract, and drove
        Into the glasses of your eyes ;
        So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize—
    Countries, towns, courts beg from above
    A pattern of your love."

This remains one of the best defenses of canonization against that devil's trident of privilege, power and politics--the mainstays of the Catholic hierarchy of bishops and pope.  Donne advocated "true religion," by which he meant what you know in your heart and conscience to be right.  The next-to-last verse spells out that a terrific orgasm ("We can die by it, if not live by love," the term "die" meaning what the French call "petit mort," or the really great feeling of passing out after a climax) is what "canonizes" you for love.  We can take any big bang of inspired enthusiasm as part of Donne's definition of canonization.
In a way, this is an American point of view, America being a land in which the big bang of 17th century Protestant reformation galvanized the Scots and Ulster Covenanters who landed in Virginia and Pennsylvania with Presbyterians and other non-conformists. Their ways--self-denying, hard-working, extreme in feeling, impulsive--fueled the Declaration of Independence as well as the Civil War.  Along with them came the various religious revivals--the First Great Awakening, Puritan preachers like Jonathan Edwards discarding empty ritual in favor of deep anxiety about personal salvation--the Second Great Awakening, the Third, the Fourth (one loses track of them after a while, but they all involve an imagination for hellfire, an idea of Jesus as a personal savior, and a suspicion of any rote elements in religious ritual).  The mood of these movements invariably involves inspiration and innovation over rote ritual--the ossified ritual of some Catholicisms.
One of America's greatest satirists,  Tom Lehrer, makes a similar point in his rollicking attack on hypocrisy, "The Vatican Rag".

Vatican II was all about commercializing the church, selling it to more people, making it accessible, appealing, even fun.   Which is like today's one-two punch.  It's a bargain.  Buy one, get one free!  Not just John XXIII but John Paul II as well.  

Eamon Duffy, a professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge, characterizes the two wryly as "The man who took the lid off and the man who tried to put it back on."  To have a canonization you've got to have a saint (or even two) and by John Donne's standards, neither of these dudes cuts it.  John XXIII Vatican-Twoed the church and whether that meant a move in the right direction or just a solid business judgement only his own conscious could reveal, so I'll take Tom Lehrer's version of events.  John Paul's spin doctor, JoaquĆ­n Navarro-Valls, claims that the “purity of his thought” made it difficult for the pontiff to accept that priests could abuse children.  Please.  The pure in thought don't become popes--and our text for today is George Bernard Shaw.
In his Preface to St. Joan (1924) Shaw remarked, 
At best very few popes have been canonized, or could be without letting down the standard of sanctity set by the self-elected saints.
No other result could have been reasonably expected; for it is not possible that an official organization of the spiritual needs of millions of men and women, mostly poor and ignorant, should compete successfully in the selection of its principals with the direct choice of the Holy Ghost as it flashes with unerring aim upon the individual. Nor can any College of Cardinals pray effectively that its choice may be inspired . . . The saints and prophets, though they may be accidentally in this or that official position or rank, are always really self-selected, like Joan. 

But now, thanks to Francis, saints will be equivalent to bureaucrats in the church, wrote one of my favorite commentators on the New York Times article about the canonizations.
Shaw knew that the bureaucrats win in any business--and that true religion is always deemed heresy by those who can't make money out of it, or who find it shocking.  
Notice how the New York Times shrewdly uses the language of business to describe these "canonizations" that remain business deals, two-pronged efforts to galvanize the faithful with yet another tired serving of miracles plus some nicely-sauced saints on the side.  The Times observes that John Paul "streamlined the canonization process," and Francis "waived the requirement" for evidence of two whole miracles. Like any good businessman, he realizes people are getting harder to fool and some other tack had best be taken (Don Draper, please call home). Francis is the folksy pope but he's still a businessman canonizing other businessmen. A saint would purge the pedophiles. A saint would let priests get married. A saint would bring in women priests and prepare the way for a woman pope. A saint would hold gay weddings in St. Peter's. A saint would hand out communion wafers with a smile to divorced Catholics who want to remarry within the church. And a saint would  smile like St. Sebastian, turning every other cheek, when the bad guys who have no imagination come after him.   A saint would go the roots of the church, to the meaning of "Catholicism" as "all-embracing."  

Let Oscar Wilde have the last word: "The only difference between a saint and a sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future."

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