A Reader’s Response to Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek Article of 4/2/12, “Christianity in Crisis”

by Dean Hansen

“Now, a word to Catholics who follow the dictates of their consciences instead of the dictates of the Vatican. Congratulations, you’re Protestant.” –Florence King

Andrew,

I read your essay in Newsweek and was refreshed by its honesty. I could hardly contain my response before finishing it, however, because it also irritated me, and I wanted to explain why. You mentioned, perhaps because it connects with the long train of Catholic teaching so well, that Christianity is all about sacrifice, pain, torment and suffering. Please forgive me for asking this, but how do you hope to revive people’s interest in the church by reminding them that the reason they left should be the same reason they would want to come back if only they knew what was good for them? Let me explain to you why I’m not coming back, why your inducements at least for Catholicism strike me as hollow, and why it’s better to not be consumed beneath the weight of some ghastly magisterium while searching for truth among the ruins.

If Christ intended to talk to people in the 21st century by sending them a clear and lucid message whose appeal and meaning would remain constant through the centuries, and whose importance and singular value were of such weight that misinterpretation must be kept at a minimum, he has failed miserably. If, on the other hand, his intention was to convey a covert, paradoxical, vague, troublesome, easily misunderstood message with multiple interpretations, diverse meanings, and self-contradictory gibberish designed to keep people at each others’ throats for 2,000 years, then he has succeeded beyond the wildest expectations imaginable. Since I cannot believe that Christ is responsible for this crap, I must believe that evil exists. And since I don’t believe there is any devil, I’m also forced to conclude that we have created him very much as Christ has created us: in our own image.

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Grim reenactment: Three Filipinos are nailed (yes, NAILED) to crosses in a Good Friday crucifixion in Barangay Cutud, San Fernando on 4/5/12. The event attracted a crowd of around 10,000 people.

The Church constantly intones that “Pope Benedict XVI, John Paul II, Mother Teresa, St. Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, Theresa of Lisieux, Teresa of Avila, and many others are models of Christianity.” And rather ghastly models at that, judging by the state of the church and the sclerotic heritage it has left in its wake.

Compare Christ’s words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” 

Mother Teresa spent 70-plus years in the slums of Calcutta, working 18-20 hours a day in the hope of becoming an acceptable vessel for Christ’s “love.” In the end, she felt abandoned and bereft of faith. Some rest for the soul.

Theresa of Lisieux was a neurotic personality who suffered from scrupulosity, a psychological disorder characterized by pathological guilt about moral or religious issues. Scrupulosity is personally distressing, objectively dysfunctional, and often accompanied by significant impairment in social functioning. It is typically conceptualized as a moral or religious form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. She scourged herself and fasted repeatedly as a result.

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The nails holding this man to the cross by his feet and hands are REAL. His wounds are real. (from Good Friday re-enactment of the Passion, 4/6/12, in the Philippines.)

Your own acknowledged favorite, Saint Francis of Assisi, engaged in severe self-inflicted penances that included vigils, fasts, frequent self-flagellations, and the use of a hair shirt to increase his discomfort with the loathsome flesh. One has to wonder, considering the random, David Blaine style, pick-any-card methodology of Francis’s Bibliomanic beginnings, what would have happened if the first passage he stumbled on was the death of a fruit tree, the removal of Peter’s ear, or pigs being drowned in the sea.

Thomas More, Catherine of Siena, and Ignatius of Loyola all engaged in similar acts of divinized sadomasochistic pathology for the favor of their lord’s “easy” yoke.

St. Teresa of Ávila undertook severe mortification once her friends suggested that her supernatural ecstasies were of diabolical origin. (Certainly her cures were.)

The seers of Fatima wore tight cords around their waists and abstained from drinking water on hot days. The Virgin Mary reportedly told them that God was pleased with their sacrifices and bodily penances.

John Paul II was known to practice flagellation, sometimes accompanied by other penitential practices like prolonged fasting and sleeping on the hard floor. He wrote an entire Apostolic Letter on the topic of suffering, specifically the redemptive meaning of suffering: Salvifici Doloris. It is considered a major contribution to the theology of pain and suffering (!).

And finally we have Vitamin B16—Joe (The Pope) Ratzinger who proclaims, “….that pain, the very product of evil and sin, is used by God to negate evil and sin. By freely suffering the pains that went with his passion and death on the cross, Jesus fully reveals his love.”

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The nails holding this man to the cross by his feet and hands are REAL. His wounds are real. (from Good Friday re-enactment of the Passion, 4/6/12, in the Philippines.)

Uh huh. Pain is the product of evil and sin and can be used to negate evil and sin. Talk about homeopathy run rampant! Here’s some hair of the dog that bit you, soldier. Eat up. Bon Appétit! That sounds like love garnished with a generous dollop of abundant living, all right! Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is Strength. War is Peace. Suffering is Joy. No more pillows for you, Francis. All that this suggests to me is that the voice of God becomes the voice of the devil when heard through the filter of ego. (And yes, even saints have them.) Suffering is inevitable. But its inevitability does not convince me of its religious virtue any more than a house fire convinces me we need more arsonists. But it does point to the Church’s blatant opportunism in regards to a handy convenient-use policy.

It’s certainly easy enough to mimic madness, but why would anyone seek it as a way of life?  There’s something “special, unique and mysterious” about Tourette syndrome too, but I don’t see the next generation of proto-Christians emulating mental illness by spitting out vulgarities as a path to holiness just so they can reveal to disbelievers that they are “not of this world.”  There are plenty of other-worldly people in mental institutions—or there would be if it weren’t for Ronald Reagan’s compassionate conservative cost-cutting policies in the 80s.

A reading of that passage in Matthew should have dispelled anyone’s idea that heaven can be earned by dint of oppressive work and endless self sacrifice. “… My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” says Jesus, but apparently, by the lights of the church triumphant, only when you’re willing to strive against insurmountable odds until you drop dead from psychic and physical trauma and exhaustion.

Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, a “saint” who received the stigmata, wrote in one of his letters: “Let us now consider what we must do to ensure that the Holy Spirit may dwell in our souls. It can all be summed up in mortification of the flesh with its vices and concupiscences, and in guarding against a selfish spirit … The mortification must be constant and steady, not intermittent, and it must last for one’s whole life. Moreover, the perfect Christian must not be satisfied with a kind of mortification which merely appears to be severe. He must make sure that it hurts.”  So much for the imitation of Christ and the Good News of the Gospel.

The catechism  of the Catholic Church states: “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes.”

Pope Paul VI also stated:

“The necessity of mortification of the flesh stands clearly revealed if we consider the fragility of our nature, in which, since Adam’s sin, flesh and spirit have contrasting desires. This exercise of bodily mortification—far removed from any form of stoicism—does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which the Son of God deigned to assume. On the contrary, mortification aims at the ‘liberation’ of man.”

This is the Christianity that Paul condemned and that Jesus excoriated. Talk about straining gnats and swallowing camels.

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?  These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”  – Colossians 2:13-23

Is this ghoulish litany of sainthood—utterly ignoring the gospels—supposed to impress outsiders with Catholicism’s rejection of the world? Or is it just an inflated sense of spiritual worth pumped up by a perverse pathology of self-loathing?

Origen had himself castrated in a sad and savage attempt to “purify” himself.  It didn’t work.

Augustine believed the source of evil was his genitals “Ecce unde” and ended up ditching his common-law wife and her son Adeodatus to get the sexual monkey off his back. Then he spent the rest of his life in guilt and regret for abandoning her. That too was a failure. Today if you self-mutilate to the point of causing yourself grievous bodily harm, you’re put under observation for 48 hours and pumped full of meds. That generally does work, at least for a while, and just thank God you’re not put in the rubber room where you have to chew your way through leather straps to greet the morning.

All this insanity is gratuitous and pointless. The ghoulish extremism and macabre self-knotting of saints and penitents is an absolute abomination that a loving God should abhor. If that’s love, Fuck love.

People dress their wounds because wounds hurt, and because pain is intolerable like the bad metaphors that are often asked to carry the weight of human experience. There are more healing properties in a gob of spit than in a bucket of religious platitudes. The most agonizing injuries we endure are often unresponsive to the well meaning cures and metaphysical vagaries inflicted on us by those who haven’t endured them themselves, but who are sure nonetheless that they have the solution for our dilemma. If God wants scars, he must want wounds. If he wants wounds, he must enjoy inflicting injury.  If the injuries don’t heal properly, it’s because people are more than casually reticent about the efficacy of appealing to the same source for a cure that either bestowed or was indifferent to the injury. What I will do with the wounds in my life is to ask why a God who claims to love us unconditionally needs to test our capacity for suffering as an adjunct for bestowing an unearned grace that ostensibly accepts us as we are, wounds and all.

The DSM-IV manual would not look kindly upon poor St. Francis today. In fact, I have absolutely no desire or longing to live like St. Francis or Augustine, Catherine of Siena, or any of the other so-called “saints” of the church.  I think the church may have confused Jimson weed with the bread of life, or manic bi-polar disorder with inspiration. I am not enamored of destitution for the sake of making some vague spiritual point about God’s love. We should help one another with a mind toward ending suffering, not elevating it to a virtue through extreme penitential sacrifice.

Happy Easter,

Dean Hansen

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