Carl’s Cuts: Francis & China, Catholic education, Obama & Islam, insanity in the ivory tower, more

• It’s been far, far too long since my last “Carl’s Cuts”, which ran on April 8, 2015. On the plus side, that post inspired over 400 comments.  Here’s aiming for 500+!

• Today is the 50th anniversary of my parents, Dennis and Glenda, wed on February 6, 1966, in a hospital room in Rapid City, SD. My father, despite being a gentleman, never stood during the wedding. He had a good, if rather unusual excuse. My parents were supposed to be married a few days earlier, in a modest service at the local court house (at the time, my parents weren’t practicing Christians; they had “born again” experiences a couple of years later), but the morning of the wedding my father, who worked as a sawyer at the time, severely cut his leg with a chain saw. His rather droll recounting of the dramatic day included the remark, “I dumped two boots of blood out the window while Gary [his brother-in-law] drove me to the hospital.” If he had been alone while working, as he often was, he likely would have died, putting this particular post in grave peril. 

Anyhow, my parents gave me several lasting things, three of which I want to mention here. First, the gift of love for Christ and Scripture, which was always present in our home. Secondly, the witness of committed fidelity as husband and wife; I never worried in the least about my parents separating or divorcing—it was not an option. How many kids can say that? Third, the gift of my sister, Amy, who is nine years younger and who a gifted singer, songwriterphotographer, and all around artistic lady. 

Congratulations and love to my parents on the blessed occasion of 50 years of holy matrimony! 

• The news that Pope Francis will meet Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba a week from today has dominated the news cycle today, for understandable reasons. And CWR will be running some pieces about the historic face-to-face before and after that meeting. But I’d like to be a stick-in-the-flash-flood of papal news a reflect for a few moments on Pope Francis’ recent interview with Asia Times about China. I’ve read the interview several times now and I have to say, with all due respect, why did he bother? Yes, I know he is playing a long game with hopes of maybe traveling to China, which is a long shot, at the very best. And I know that outlets such as CRUX were quite taken with Francis’ “message of hope, peace, and reconciliation.”

During the hour-long interview with columnist Francesco Sisci, the pope described China as a “great country,” and said that the world should not fear China’s growing power. However, he warned, the “true balance of peace is realized through dialogue.”

Warned? Is the promise of “dialogue” now a threat? What I learned from the interview, conducted by China Renmin University senior researcher Francesco Sisci, is that Francis thinks China is “great”. For instance: “For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom.” Okay. Fair enough. Of course, the same could be said about any country; in fact, the interview suffers from a fog of generalities that risk being brazenly banal:

“And the Catholic Church, one of whose duties is to respect all civilizations, before this civilization, I would say, has the duty to respect it with a capital ‘R’. The Church has great potential to receive culture.”

“Man tends to communicate, a civilization tends to communicate. It is evident that when communication happens in an aggressive tone to defend oneself, then wars result. But I would not be fearful.”

“Encounter is achieved through dialogue. The true balance of peace is realized through dialogue. Dialogue does not mean that we end up with a compromise, half the cake for you and the other half for me.”

“The history of a people is always a path. A people at times walks more quickly, at times more slowly, at times it pauses, at times it makes a mistake and goes backwards a little, or takes the wrong path and has to retrace its steps to follow the right way. But when a people moves forward, this does not worry me because it means they are making history. And I believe that the Chinese people are moving forward and this is their greatness.”

The words “great” and “greatness” (nearly 20 times combined) and “dialogue” (12 times) appear often. Words that don’t appear: “Jesus Christ”, “faith”, and “persecution”. The first quote above is the only reference to the Church. With just a couple of mild exceptions, this interview might as well have been with the ambassador from England or a professor of Chinese history at an American university—although I think the latter might not have avoided the totalitarian/Communist elephant in the room. 

There are a couple of hints. “It is necessary to recognize the greatness of the Chinese people,” says Francis, “who have always maintained their culture. And their culture – I am not speaking about ideologies that there may have been in the past – their culture was not imposed.” That appears to be a swipe, at least generally, at the Communist ideology that was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions under Mao. In just a four year period (1958-62, “The Great Leap Forward”) Mao was responsible for some 45 million Chinese killed. And, yes, Mao tried to destroy traditional Chinese culture. Is the current regime better? Yes, but the persecution, arrests, and mysterious disappearances continue. 

Benedict XVI, in 2007, in an important letter to the Chinese people, encouraged them to hold fast, even in the midst of profound suffering:

In the most difficult periods of the recent history of the Catholic Church in China, the lay faithful, both as individuals and families and as members of spiritual and apostolic movements, have shown total fidelity to the Gospel, even paying a personal price for their faithfulness to Christ. My dear lay people, you are called, today too, to incarnate the Gospel in your lives and to bear witness to it by means of generous and effective service for the good of the people and for the development of the country: and you will accomplish this mission by living as honest citizens and by operating as active and responsible co-workers in spreading the word of God to those around you, in the country or in the city. You who in recent times have been courageous witnesses of the faith, must remain the hope of the Church for the future! This demands from you an ever more engaged participation in all areas of Church life, in communion with your respective Pastors. (15)

While Sandro Magister was openly dismissive of Francis’ “Realpolitik”, CRUX’s John Allen, Jr. wrote, “Time will tell — and, since this is China and the Vatican, that time may have to be measured in geological terms — whether the good will a pope buys by skipping over such matters will produce results down the line.” Anyone familiar with the history of Communism knows that dialogue and “good will” usually don’t go very far with Communist leaders. One can only hope and pray that matters are better behind the scenes, even if history and common sense says matters really aren’t that “great”.

• For instance, the same day that Francis’ interview with Asia Times was published, news came out that Gu Yuese, the senior pastor at China’s largest government-approved Protestant church, was arrested and jailed for his continued opposition to the government-sponsored cross-demolition project in China, which has, Christianity Today reports, “removed thousands of crosses in an area of Zhejiang province known as “China’s Jerusalem.” Chongyi Church is in Zhejiang’s capital city, Hangzhou.” The article continues: 

In January, the TSPM and China Christian Council forcibly removed Gu from Chongyi Church, saying the change was necessary to “move one step closer towards the proper self-construction and management of church locations … and sort out the interpersonal relationship between the province and the two municipal [Christian] organizations.”

Ten days later, Gu was taken into custody and sent to a black jail, a detention facility which falls outside of the country’s established penal system, China Aid reported. The following day, the Chinese government confirmed that Gu was currently undergoing a criminal investigation.

“This is really quite an escalation,” China Aid president Bob Fu told the Christian Science Monitor (CSM). “It sends a signal to silence any potential future dissenting voices from within the church. It tells everyone to shut up.”

The piece notes two things of consequence. First, historically, persecution has been aimed at house, or “underground” churches; the fact that Yuese was the pastor of a 10,000 member state-sponsored church is unusual. Secondly, there is an “emerging leftist movement with nostalgia for Mao.” That hardly bodes well. There’s also the fact that from July to September 2015, China “detained or arrested more than 250 attorneys, pastors, and human rights activists for protesting the cross removals.” That is chilling, to put it mildly.

• Catherine McAuley High School, an all-girls Catholic high school in Maine founded in 1969 by the Sisters of Mercy, has “announced plans to sever ties with its religious sponsors starting next fiscal year, July 1, 2016.” In other words, in will no longer be Catholic. Why? 

“To best realize their vision and mission, institutions must evolve with the times,” said McAuley board chairwoman Heidi Osborn and Sister Jacqueline Marie Kieslich, president of the Northeast Community of the Sisters of Mercy, in a joint statement. “Together, McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy have concluded that the school can best continue to serve its students by ending our historical affiliation.”

Head of School Karen Woodson Barr said Wednesday the school would continue to encourage “students of all faiths … to have a spiritual life,” and would maintain its “foundation of ethical and moral values.” 

The report on the change does not offer much background to the decision, but a letter from the Director of Marketing (!) at the school mentions an increased focus on “social justice”, “global service”, and “self discovery”. If only the Catholic Church had anything at all to say about social justice, serving peoples around the world, and discovering both the meaning of our humanity and the purpose of our lives. If only. 

• President Obama addressed a mosque in Baltimore this past week and spoke a great deal about tolerance, implicitly indicating that many Americans are suffering from the ravages of Islamophobia, of which a defining feature is, it seems, the incorrigible refusal to swallow the bi-partisan (remember Bush?) line that Islam is a “religion of peace”. David Harsanyi highlighted some of the silliness by remarking, “This week, Obama spoke about the evils of Islamophobia to a group that featured women covered, subordinated, and segregated from men.” Harsanyi clearly is an insensitive soul, caught up in facts and reality rather than rhetoric and spin:

I’m happy he’s open-minded about that sort of thing. Americans are free to practice their faith in any way they choose. But I’m not sure why all of us should feel obligated to celebrate this kind of narrow-mindedness. You will remember how offended liberals get when presidential candidates visit Bob Jones University or Mormons fund campaigns they find objectionable. Why is this different?

Christians, of course, were lectured for flirting strongly with narrow-mindedness and bigotry. “If we’re serious about freedom of religion”, opined the POTUS, “and I’m speaking now to my fellow Christians, who remain the majority in this country – we have to understand, an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths. … We have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias and targets people because of religion.” That is rather rich, coming from a man whose allegiance to Planned Parenthood is not only fervently religious but political in intent, as evidenced by his administration’s continued efforts to force Catholic nuns to pay for contraceptives. But Obama, as Jonathan S. Tobin points out, fails completely (and knowingly, I think) to face up to the real issue:

It is all well and good for this president to assert, as his predecessor has done, that Islam is a “religion of peace.” Many Muslims believe this is so, and we should hope that their interpretation would become universally accepted. But no matter how sympathetic President Obama may be to the Islamic world, he does not have the religious authority to determine what is or is not Islamic. The problem is that ISIS, al Qaeda, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and even the Islamist regime in Iran are not marginal forces in the Muslim world. Islamist parties and movements have widespread support as well as the backing of major religious leaders and institutions. Though they differ on tactics and are divided by many issues, their belief that Islam is fundamentally at war with the West is not a view that is restricted to a few lunatics in the Syrian desert who are beheading people.

More on this story in a feature article next week.

• Speaking of Islam, some 2010 quotes by “new atheist” Richard Dawkins have been revived (since Dawkins doesn’t believe anything can be resurrected): “I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse. … There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death.” Dawkins best be careful, lest he be named and shamed as an Islamophobe. 

• In a now ancient column—dated December 1, 2015—Jonah Goldberg pointed out the blatant hypocrisy of progressives (like President Obama) who insist that ISIS and Co. have nothing to do with Islam, but never hesitate to tie isolated attacks on abortion mills to Christianity:

So where is the condemnation of the phrase “Christian terrorism” (or, for that matter, “white terrorism”)? By all means, Christian leaders should denounce violent attacks on Planned Parenthood. But shouldn’t progressive leaders condemn any effort to tie Christianity with terrorism?

Apparently not. It seems taking sides against Christianity is the progressive thing to do.

In a famous speech at the National Prayer Breakfast this year, President Obama lectured Christian clergy not to get on their “high horse” about the atrocities committed by ISIL, given that Christians committed (allegedly) similar atrocities during the Crusades.

It’s difficult to catalog all the flaws with this comparison, but one problem stands above all of the rest. By laying the Crusades at the feet of Christianity, Obama was unwittingly laying ISIL’s atrocities at Islam’s feet, at least rhetorically.

Consider that modern-day Council of Nicea, ABC’s The View. Joy Behar recently insisted concern over Muslim refugees was overblown. After all, Oklahoma City bomber “Timothy McVeigh was a Christian,” Behar said. “Just sayin’.”

Whoopi Goldberg (no relation) concurred. “There have been a lot of monster Christians,” she said. “Hitler was a Christian.”

Just for the record, Hitler detested Christianity, and McVeigh was an avowed agnostic who never cited Jesus as the inspiration for his crimes.

Personally, I’m opposed to all such forms of guilt by association, but it seems obvious to me that contemporary Christianity is not struggling with a Crusades problem, while Islam is certainly struggling with a jihad problem.

I can hear the retort already: “Hey, what about the Crusades?” Yes, what about them? Well, as Dr. Thomas Madden points out:

Myth 1: The Crusades were wars of unprovoked aggression against a peaceful Muslim world. 

This is as wrong as wrong can be. From the time of Mohammed, Muslims had sought to conquer the Christian world. They did a pretty good job of it, too. After a few centuries of steady conquests, Muslim armies had taken all of North Africa, the Middle East, Asia Minor, and most of Spain. In other words, by the end of the eleventh century the forces of Islam had captured two-thirds of the Christian world. Palestine, the home of Jesus Christ; Egypt, the birthplace of Christian monasticism; Asia Minor, where St. Paul planted the seeds of the first Christian communities: These were not the periphery of Christianity but its very core. And the Muslim empires were not finished yet. They continued to press westward toward Constantinople, ultimately passing it and entering Europe itself. As far as unprovoked aggression goes, it was all on the Muslim side. At some point what was left of the Christian world would have to defend itself or simply succumb to Islamic conquest. The First Crusade was called by Pope Urban II in 1095 in response to an urgent plea for help from the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople. Urban called the knights of Christendom to come to the aid of their eastern brethren. It was to be an errand of mercy, liberating the Christians of the East from their Muslim conquerors. In other words, the Crusades were from the beginning a defensive war. The entire history of the eastern Crusades is one of response to Muslim aggression.

Read all eight myths.

• A moment of academic levity—or surreality—from a reader who works in the library of a renowned American university:

Minutes ago, a student walked up to the circulation desk and handed his ID card to D——. She scanned it, and when his library patron record appeared onscreen, there was no alert dialog box indicating that he had books to pick up.

D——: There is nothing waiting here for you. Were you expecting to pick up a book?

Student: No.

D——: How can I help you?

Student: Headphones.

D——: I’m sorry, I did not hear you say you wanted headphones.

Student: I didn’t.

D——: I’m sorry, but how would I know that you wanted headphones?

Student: What else would I be here for?

D——: A book?

Student: I suppose that’s possible. (walks away with his newly-borrowed headphones).

If you’ve read “The Coddling of the American Mind” in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic, you’ll recognize that as depressing as the anecdote above is, it’s small potatoes compared to the profound upheavals taking place in higher education. One such shift is the wholesale embrace of “emotional reasoning”:

Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.

How, exactly, do you reason with people who “think” with their feelings? Yes, I know I’m a hater simply for posing the question.

• One educator who isn’t afraid to buck the currents of political correct relativism and joyless deconstructionsm is the poet and critic Dana Gioia who is the current Poet Laureate of California and the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at USC. His recent essay “Poetry as Enchantment” (available online and in print form) is a fine example of a great poet challenging ordinary readers to see, read, and quote poetry in a new way—which is actually an old and traditional way. He recounts, for example, how he once taught a graduate seminar on poetic form at an elite private institution:

A few weeks into the course we arrived at the sonnet, and I asked each student to memorize one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. This assignment met with initial resistance and much anxiety from the students. Not one of them, I learned, had ever been required, at any point in their education, to memorize a poem. They also did not understand why it made sense for a student, even a graduate student of literature, to memorize a poem.

And to think I had to do that in junior high and high school while growing up in Nowhere, Montana! Gioia’s new collection of poetry, 99 Poems: New & Selected, is out in early March from Graywolf Press; CWR will be reviewing it soon. 

• Sean Salai, SJ, an occasional contributor to CWR, recently had a fabulous interview with Janet E. Smith in America magazine: Bioethics and the Catholic Church: 21 Questions for Janet E. Smith”. It’s worth reading in full; here are a couple of snippets:

[Q]: When it comes to issues of bioethics and sexuality, on everything from stem cell research to human cloning, many Americans say “we cannot legislate morality” and reject moral concerns as personal religious beliefs, which aren’t accessible to non-religious people. How would you respond?

[A]: It is not too facile to say that legislation is either a matter of legislating morality or of legislating immorality; there can be no third option. Either abortion is moral or immoral; it is not like the choice between vanilla or chocolate ice cream. One has to take a stand; does abortion take a human life or does it not?

The problem is that our culture no longer believes that it has any means to determine what is true and what is false. Alasdair MacIntyre and John Paul II among others have done a marvelous job showing how various developments in philosophy over the ages have brought us to this point. Since our culture is thoroughly skeptical and relativistic, the ability to make strong arguments does not translate into persuasive arguments.  …

[Q]: Any final thoughts?

[A]: Since this is a Jesuit publication, I have been wondering if John Courtney Murray would think it true any longer that there is a natural affinity between the American experiment and Catholicism. I think we are now living in a post-Christian age. As a young person, I was blown away by Plato’s analysis that governments have a natural order of degeneration. I think it has happened here. Democracy has devolved into mobocracy, to a crass hedonism and is on the verge of a tyranny.

Smith’s essay “What Comes After the Synod” (First Things, November 5, 2015) is a sober and thoughtful assessment of where things stand following the 2015 Synod of Bishops. Speaking of which, a younger Catholic recently remarked to me that he didn’t follow the Synod too closely because he doesn’t like “all of the politics” involved. The language itself is telling: is orthodoxy “political”? On one level, I suppose so, but not the most important level, which is that of truth. I suspect that far too few Catholics really understand that much of the “fighting” (as some have called it, despite the genteel nature of the Synod) and “politics” were about deeply meaningful matters: the sacraments, the nature of marriage, and so forth.

• I have to say that being featured in a Michael Sean Winters’ article titled “Opposition to Pope Francis Comes Out of the Closet” (NCReporter, Dec 4, 2015) is, well, funny. (And if you don’t know why, don’t lose sleep over it.) Winters has what can be rightly described as a tenuous relationship with facts and arguments (never mind crisp and engaging writing); it appears that he is aware they exist, but he’s unsure of how to handle or employ them. So he insinuates, insults, misdirects, and creates a smokescreen of banal blathering (and I do want to apologize to banalities and blatherings everywhere). 

Winters goes after Cardinal Burke, me, and George Weigel, claiming that I and Mr. Weigel share “a fetish for clarity that bespeaks nothing so much as an unfamiliarity with the actual pastoral challenges posed by modernity.” I’ll happily defer to the author’s expertise on fetishes, but I will note how intrigued I am that Winters is eager to take up the mantle of ultramontanism and defend every jot, tittle, and airflighted utterance delivered by the Holy Father; I just wish Winters had a more abiding interest in upholding official, magisterial teachings about any number of things (contraception, women’s ordination, homosexuality, etc.).

But notice his adroit ability to both deflect and insult all at once: since I think highly of clarity when it comes to important and oft-misunderstood issues, I am thus clueless about what real people struggle with out there in the real world. Because, good reader, I’m a Luddite living in a monastery in a remote village in central Europe and don’t know what is really going on. I jest, of course: I actually am married, have three children, spent years working in a secular setting, am good friends with my pastor, teach a weekly class at my parish, am involved in a number of catechetical and evangelistic endeavors, and regularly interact with non-Catholics—even non-Christians—on a regular basis. After all, it’s not as if Eugene, Oregon, is called “The Little Vatican on the Willamette” (it’s actually been called “Moscow on the Willamette”). 

And then there is this bit of peevish smearing by Winters: “I am not surprised that there is opposition to Pope Francis. I am not surprised that the upcoming Year of Mercy will occasion more of it, just as the opposition to Jesus grew when he dared to preach God’s mercy.” Give me a break. First, perhaps Winters can show where I’ve made any sort of criticism of The Year of Mercy or of mercy in general. Considering that I wrote a weekly Scripture for Our Sunday Visitor newspaper for nine years, he should have plenty of options. Perhaps here? Or here?—in which I write:

Maintaining the proper balance between the interior transformation and the exterior expression is always challenging. The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees was due to an imbalance heavily weighted toward exterior actions over inward disposition. The Law described the necessary purification to be observed by the priests (cf. Ex 30:17-21). As time passed, rabbis and scribes developed an oral tradition — eventually known as the Mishnah and the Talmud — meant to clarify and provide legal interpretation of the Law. Meant to protect and clarify, this “tradition of the elders” began to hinder and obscure. Jesus strongly condemned the hypocrisy of an empty, external practice: “The people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

The Law was meant to be a teacher and guide, as the apostle Paul often stated, but had become secondary, even ignored, within a labyrinth of human laws and traditions. The Pharisees had great zeal for the law, but they had actually turned everything upside down — the cart of human tradition was now pulling the horse of divine Law. The external actions mandated in the Law were meant to develop and deepen an awareness of sin and the gift of God’s mercy. God’s word is meant to change man’s heart, which is the source of not only his emotions, but also his intellect and will (cf. 1 Jn 3:19-21). The Pharisees replaced capital “T” Tradition with small “t” traditions. “You disregard God’s commandment,” said Jesus, “but cling to human tradition.” Human tradition is not necessarily morally wrong, but it should not take a place of priority it is not meant to possess. Put another way, it is an issue of justice, for true worship and humble obedience are due first to God — everything else follows. 

The fact is, I know and believe that God extends mercy to all of us—even the crazies. 

• Finally, I am happy to note that Called To Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification (Spring, 2016; Ignatius Press), which I co-edited with Fr. David Meconi, SJ, is getting some very positive attention from both Catholic and Orthodox scholars. Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap., a member of the International Theological Commission, writes:

While it is often assumed that the Christian notion of deification is reserved primarily to Eastern or Orthodox theology, this excellent collection of essays, written by eminent scholars, beautifully and clearly demonstrates just how much Western theology throughout the ages has developed this marvelous understanding of God’s grace within the Christian believer. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit Christians are transformed into the likeness of Christ the Son and so become authentic children of the Father, thus they are taken up into the very divine communion of life and love that is the Trinity itself. Theologians, pastors, students and laity alike would benefit immensely from reading this book, not only for developing their theological knowledge but also for deepening their love for the divine life they already live here on earth.

And Eastern Orthodox theologian Norman Russell, author of several books on theosis and patristics, says:

Called To Be the Children of God convincingly challenges the conventional view that the Latin Fathers borrowed the notion of deification from the Greeks and then dropped it in favour of an impoverished forensic model of salvation. A series of masterful essays on a selection of Catholic theologians from the patristic age to John Paul II demonstrates that even if some avoided the language of deification they all envisaged salvation as a transforming union with God, an ecclesial and ascetical ascent to participation in the life of the Trinity. This is an important book, full of surprises for the expert yet written in an attractive style that makes it accessible to a broad readership.

More soon, as I will be shamelessly promoting the book in the weeks and months to come. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.