Orientalist Dreams of Poland as Catholiclandia (Part I)

The Papal States . . .

The Papal States . . .

. . . have Pope money!

. . . think the pope is money.

There are plenty of stereotypes floating in the seas of religious punditry. The so-called pundits are usually anchored in quite a circumscribed set of prejudices they project onto Poland. Both liberal and conservative leaning theologians like to think of my home country, for very different reasons, as a kind of Catholic Disneyland. Upon closer inspection these flattened Western pictures of Poland mirror what Edward Said labeled as Orientalism. They paint a picture of an exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous culture. Poland as a mythical Catholiclandia is a haven for conservatives (where they have no NYT), while it’s a reactionary hell for liberals (possibly the only hell they believe in).

At the Dominicans in Krakow.

RJN singing the praises of Poland in Poland. The picture he presented was a bit fuzzy.

I remember seeing Richard John Neuhaus in Krakow (Summer 2007)  and being pleasantly surprised  by his Jack Nicholson voice. He spoke enthusiastically about Poland’s vibrant Catholic culture and its strong alliance with the United States against the secular-exception of Western Europe (in the context of a worldwide sea of religion) and added a few words in defense of capitalism. It was a (too?) bold reversal of the secularization thesis, which usually has Poland and the United States as the exceptions (in the tiny island of what used to be Western culture). I asked the poet Artur Grabowski what he thought of what Neuhaus said and he replied with, “I wish it were like that” (rough!). In retrospect it seems RJN was projecting a positively backward exoticism not only onto the homeland of Wojtyla, but also the USA.

Authors such as Hans Küng adopted different reductionist projects. Their Orientalist version of Poland was usually attached to an animus toward JP2 and an oversimplified picture of Poland’s past. They were convinced that someone who earned his chops in a black and white struggle against the commies couldn’t sees Poland as a place Church during the Communist era was clearly too simple. John Paul II didn’t connect with the complexities of the late modern West (questionable, but hey). My favorite example of this type of Orientalism was Peter Hebblethwaite who spent years hating John Paul II’s Polish stupidity. For years he was always the guy on CNN predicting who the next pope would be. The irony is he died before his book on the “next pope” was published, not to mention about a decade before John Paul II died.

With that quick setup  let’s start with the reasons why Poland, like Brazil, is not a Catholic utopia (and that’s OK):

Fr. Jozef Tischner grasped Solidarity.

Fr. Jozef Tischner grasped Solidarity.

1) Clericalism:  Fr. Jozef Tischner, Solidarity’s chaplain, Poland’s leading phenomenologist, spent the better part of his life fighting against Polish clericalism. The writings Poland’s leading literary figures, world class writers such as Witold Gombrowicz (atheist) and Czeslaw Milosz (Catholic), contain their fair share of anti-clericalism. With the help of phenomenology, personalism, and the mystics John Paul II put stress upon active lay holiness in ways unseen until his papacy.  Poles (including Polish clerics as you can see from the examples above) have always been healthily suspicious of Catholic clerics. You can figure out some of the reason for it by continuing to read below.

It's complicated.

It’s complicated.

2) Diversity: Until very recently Poland has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. This probably has something to do with the fact that for the better part of Poland’s history, pretty much since it came into existence in 986, the papacy usually sided with Poland’s enemies. This started with Rome’s favoritism toward the Holy [sic!] Roman Empire. Polish tolerance toward the Radical Reformation showcased its traditional tolerance until the Jesuits showed up. Poland also took in all the Jews who were expelled by Western Europe right around the same time. Nineteenth century Polish Romanticism, a significant political/literary movement (one of JP2’s greatest intellectual influences), also tended antagonize the hierarchy with its tendencies toward socialism and resistance against authoritarian regimes. Kloczowski’s A History of Polish Christianity is a magisterial overview of the variety of Polish Christianities, its history of religious pluralism and tolerance, plus it also covers intra-Polish-Catholic diversity.

Mickiewicz to Pius IX about the 1848 Revolution in France: "God's spirit is in the hearts of the Parisian people."

Mickiewicz to Pius IX about the 1848 Revolution in France: “God’s spirit is in the hearts of the Parisian people.”

Next I’ll tackle the following two interconnected phenomena: the collapse of Solidarity and the growing influence of Neo-Con inspired consumerism. [Catholiclandia II is now available here.]

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The Wild & Wooly von Balthasar

Dare we hope all men be saved from war? Pictured: von Balthasar (left) and de Lubac (right).

Dare we hope all men be saved from war? Pictured: von Balthasar (left) and de Lubac (right).

It’s a given von Balthasar is smarter than you are.  Henri de Lubac once called him the most cultured man alive.  The story is he was so cultured he gave away his stereo because he could play back all of Mozart . . . in his head.  True story.  He’s frequently given flack for concentrating too much on beauty and not enough on politics, especially when he makes statements like this one which I cited in an earlier post here:  

“Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man… Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”

This vengeance takes on a decidedly political coloring when you consider its effects:

“But whenever the relationship between nature and grace is severed (as happens… where ‘faith’ and ‘knowledge’ are constructed as opposites), then the whole of worldly being falls under the dominion of ‘knowledge’, and the springs and forces of love immanent in the world are overpowered and finally suffocated by science, technology and cybernetics. The result is a world without women, without children, without reverence for love in poverty and humiliation – a world in which power and the profit-margin are the sole criteria, where the disinterested, the useless, the purposeless is despised, persecuted and in the end exterminated – a world in which art itself is forced to wear the mask and features of technique.”

Say "hello" to your new Facebook cover photo.

Say “hello” to your new Facebook cover photo.

So much for von Balthasar as a aesthete.  What’s more, his answers to modernity’s cult of force are even more radical than you’d ever suspect.  They strike at the roots of our most cherished beliefs about what’s feasible:

“A few centuries ago, humanity was ripe for the insight that slavery is incompatible with human rights. Today we see the dawning of the day when responsible humanity will be ripe for the insight that bloody war contradicts its present adult state and is no longer an appropriate means to resolve questions and conflicts of humanity that has become indivisible and takes charge of its own self; this is the day when the best men begin to be ashamed of war. Very earthly economic and political reasons may have contributed to the emergence of this insight, but it is nevertheless the Christian seed that sprouts in the human conscience and leads to this decision, which is mature today.” [Thanks for the lead Gregory Dean Voiles.]

Sounds strange, doesn’t it?  But you must admit the notion of abolishing the institution of slavery, which has been with humanity since time out of mind, must have seemed as silly to 19th century moderns as the notion of abolishing war does to us. Don’t forget that it wasn’t secularists, but Christians with their nutty Bible-reasoning who led the abolitionist movement.  Stephen L. Carter in God’s Name in Vain, a book I’ve cited here and here, reminds us of this important historical detail; the separation of church and state was used against abolitionists.

So, dare we hope all men be saved from war?

No joke. Pictured: von Balthasar (left) and Rahner (right)

By the way, Happy Birthday once again Toby! Dude, start a blog.

American Idol

Czeslaw-Milosz-Quotes-4

Sarcasm anyone?

That something went wrong with the post-conciliar Church is a truism of both left and right Catholics.  The right thinks it went too far and was too much “in the spirit of” anything goes.  For the left it didn’t go far enough, or wasn’t interpreted enough “in the spirit of” anything goes.  These debates are boring enough to drive away people in droves.  They merely reflect, bow down to, the dominant political trends of this nation.  The fact that former Catholics are the second largest religious group in the United States is both a sign of a post-Protestant America and a sign of American Catholicism’s inability to make much of its opening in the public square.

Doesn’t Catholicism have anything to offer in itself?

Czeslaw Milosz captures some of the reasons behind this abject failure:

And there was a holiday in Megalopolis.
Streets were closed to traffic, people walked in procession.
The statue of a god, slowly moved along:
A phallus four stories high
Surrounded by a crowd of priests and priestesses
Who tossed about in a whirling dance.
A service was also being celebrated in Christian churches
Where liturgy consisted of discussion
Under the guidance of a priest in Easter vestment
On whether we should believe in life after death,
Which the president then put to the vote . . .

The desperate attempt to be accepted also has its right-syncretist equivalent as a recent prayer distributed by the USCCB reminds us:

Prayer for the Protection of Religious Liberty

“O God our Creator,
from your provident hand we have received
our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
You have called us as your people and given us
the right and the duty to worship you, the only true God,
and your Son, Jesus Christ.
Through the power and working of your Holy Spirit,
you call us to live out our faith in the midst of the world,
bringing the light and the saving truth of the Gospel
to every corner of society.

We ask you to bless us
in our vigilance for the gift of religious liberty.
Give us the strength of mind and heart
to readily defend our freedoms when they are threatened;
give us courage in making our voices heard
on behalf of the rights of your Church
and the freedom of conscience of all people of faith.

Grant, we pray, O heavenly Father,
a clear and united voice to all your sons and daughters
gathered in your Church
in this decisive hour in the history of our nation,
so that, with every trial withstood
and every danger overcome—
for the sake of our children, our grandchildren,
and all who come after us—
this great land will always be ‘one nation, under God,
indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’

We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

My reaction?

How the Church expects to survive by wrapping itself in the Declaration of Independence and the Pledge to the Flag is beyond me.  Which brings me to the following choke by the Diocese of Brooklyn:

Unfortunately not The Onion

Unfortunately not The Onion

This is not a bad joke, as documented by the Millennial blog.  In fact, such plagiarism is not new.  It dates to way back before Vatican II.  It is part of a long tradition, starting at least with John Courtney Murray, of bending the knee to the flag while breaking the back of Catholic universalism.

For example, do you remember this proud moment when American Catholics finally went mainstream?

Stephen L. Carter, in his God’s Name in Vain, documents what the statement, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all” really meant.

Kennedy was actually letting the electorate know he wasn’t going to follow the Vatican’s severe pressure on him to do more to fight racial segregation.

The context makes a difference, doesn’t it?

Sure, other countries do it, but here I’m talking exclusively about American idolatry and the American Church’s surrender.  American Catholics really shouldn’t allow themselves to be stuck with this (caution: foul language):

Perhaps one ought to pray for another declaration of independence?

 

Pagan Symbols and the Coming Christianity

cerne1

Cromwell or: How are they gonna keep ’em away from the farm once they’ve seen Karl Hungus?

Philip Jenkins of Baylor U is probably our most perceptive commentator on religion.  His views are almost always even-handed, even if he’s describing trends he’s not quite comfortable with.  One cannot help but be extremely impressed when reading The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.

There he described, in the first edition of 2002, an ineluctable shift of Christianity south of the equator, long before it was popular to say so, long before Bergoglio became Francis.

What’s impressive about his writing is that according to him–even though Jenkins himself appears to be a very mildly liberal Episcopalian, even though he seems to be squirming in his seat as he writes the words–Christianity will become much more “conservative and supernaturalist” than comfortable for First World Christians.  What’s more, he predicts a shift of focus away from petty First World bickering to real Third World problems.

Great read and a must read.

Great read and a must read.

A recent article of his,“Farewell, Old Pagan World,” is presently making its rounds through social media.  In it Jenkins goes through several examples of how Christianity supplanted paganism in the Western imagination.  He points out how several cultural artifacts, which were taken to be pagan by most moderns, have time and again proven to either be saturated by Christian redactions or totally fabricated by Christians.  The most amusing example, at least to my mind, is the striking Cerne Abbas pictured above.  There is a certain relish to what Jenkins says about it:

“Scholar Ronald Hutton points out that the figure is not even referred to before the late 17th century, unlike other authentic monuments like Stonehenge, which had intrigued travelers through the Middle Ages. By far the most likely conclusion is that this impressive figure, with his giant phallus and club, is meant to depict not Hercules but… Oliver Cromwell. The local landowner in the 1650s was a Royalist Anglican who loathed Cromwell’s Puritan regime. In internal exile on his estate, he whiled away his time ordering the construction of a savage chalk-cut cartoon of the dictator, with the large club indicating the regime’s total lack of legitimacy.  Cerne Abbas isn’t a pagan idol, it’s a dirty joke.”

He deconstructs Beowulf much in the same way.  The ultimate takeaway is that:

“In modern times, books by authors like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have inspired hugely successful popular culture treatments, although they are sometimes accused of imposing their Christian interpretations on the older mythologies. In reality, it is very hard indeed to excavate through those medieval Christian layers to find Europe’s pagan roots. Never underestimate just how thoroughly and totally the Christian church penetrated the European mind.”

Much to my chagrin, Jenkins seems to come too close to something like an anti-pagan supersessionism when he ignores how the penetration goes both ways.

The Rick Perry episode I mentioned here is an example of what I’m talking about.  The governor thinks the secularists are persecuting Christians when “They can come in very large ways like the war on terror or our freedoms can be taken away in small ways like the removal of a Christmas tree from a classroom.”  The mention of the Christmas tree is peculiar because, as any pedantic village atheist will tell you, it’s (GASP!) a (spoiler alert!) pagan symbol.

I believe the Cambridge theologian Catherine Pickstock does a much better job of capturing this double-penetration and some of its anthropological and political implications in the article “Liturgy and Modernity” in Telos (113):

“Catholicism much more tolerant than [classical] liberalism [/capitalism/globalism]. In this schema, each difference is fully tolerated precisely because it is more than tolerated, since each difference is a figural repetition of the other differences. Thus, Catholicism has allowed many local rites and variations, and has sheltered much traditional folk narrative and practice. It has been able to reconstrue pre-Christian myths and rituals as figurative anticipations of Catholicism. This may seem like an imperialist gesture, but this figurative reading enriches the sense of Catholicism. Thus, in the legends of the Holy Grail, Celtic ideas of inspirational cauldrons are read eucharistically. This also discloses new dimensions in eucharistic understanding.”

This should give pause to those who are worried about the leveling and cultural destruction globalism leaves in its wake.  Why imprison oneself in hegemony-envy of the Catholics like Gramsci?  Why wish for a St. Francis to radicalize the multitudes like Hardt and Negri?  Why, when there’s pope Francis and the hybrid God and the hybrid institution he represents?

He’s also from the Global South.

new pope woody allen

both/and

One More Nortre Dame Book on/and the Legacy of Solidarność

solidarity

Last night I went back and checked the Notre Dame Press overstock site on a hunch.  I wanted to check whether they publish one of the few books I know of in English about the legacy of Solidarity from a theological viewpoint.  Indeed, they do.  Beyer’s Recovering Solidarity describes its task as follows:

“Using Poland as a case study, Beyer explores the obstacles to promoting an ethic of solidarity in contemporary capitalist societies and attempts to demonstrate how the moral revolution of the early Solidarity movement can be revived, both in its country of origin and around the world. Recovering Solidarity is widely interdisciplinary, utilizing Catholic social tradition, philosophical ethics, developmental economics, poverty research, gender studies, and sociology.”

The “gender studies” stick out like a sore thumb.  Gender studies don’t seem to apply to 80’s Poland, which, I suppose, is all the more reason to inflict it upon those people and times (yet, what Beyer wrote about John Paul II in the Huff Post here is on the mark).

sign of cross

This dissonance was amplified by my bedtime reading of Colm Tóibín‘s The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe.   The subtitle might be a slight misnomer, especially since the chapter on Poland, “The Memory of War,” deals with the author doing his best to ignore and dismiss everything about Polish Catholicism.  That’s because he’s mainly there as a globalist tourist expecting to have an Auschwitz epiphany.  He initially bypasses the great centers of Polish culture, nearly a thousand years of history, and heads straight for the crematoria as if there’s nothing else to see in Poland.

In my darker moments I feel the Germans won the memory wars by planting their worst concentration camps in Poland, instead of on their own soil.  This intuition is best exemplified by the New York Times “Polish concentration camps” controversy.  Not that Tóibín is any different from our wedding guests in Krakow, some of whom headed for the sites of mass extermination the day after our nuptials.

Tóibín only changes tracks sporadically to become irked by the naive “mildness” of Poland’s practicing “Solidarity Catholics” of the 90’s and mocks them for their remembrance of the Katyń massacre.  He totally ignores the fact that in excess of 2.5 million Polish Catholics were killed during World War II, because their suffering somehow doesn’t count–even though Timothy Snyder points out they, not the Jews, were initially selected for extermination.  Perhaps the catholicity of suffering in history is too messy for us too take in?

I’ll come back to the topic of memory and World War II some other time, because I’m convinced that Eva Hoffman was right when she told me in private conversation that a balanced understanding of Poland’s history in the West is impeded by competing Jewish and Polish martyrologies locked in a zero-sum game.

There’s also a lot to be said about Tóibín’s discomfort with how much the liturgical calendar set the pace of life in 90’s Poland, and how much he could “relax, feel at home” (last words of the chapter) once he got back to the 24/7 consumerism of Western Europe. He might take comfort in the liturgies of capitalist secularism beginning to dislodge Catholicism in present day Poland.

The sometimes over-the-top clericalism of Polish culture might need some competition to clean house, but I fear the real gains of important historical episodes, for example, Solidarność, will be lost in the shuffle.  Dariusz Karłowicz, no stranger to these pages (I’ve written about his work here, here, here, and here), outlines the practical and theological contributions of Solidarność in an essay I translated a while back for the Tischner Institute in Krakow.  He concludes with questions I’d like to see Gerald Beyer’s book address:

“The qualified unity which shows itself during pilgrimages or f loods finds few outlets during day to day dealings with others. To judge from its past f lashes, the hidden potential of solidarity is still immense. Will it be utilized? Without a doubt, its guardian is Pope John Paul II. Will the Church be its future guardian or maybe the developing world of social institutions and non-profits? It’s hard to say.”

You can find the rest of this essay here on the Tischner Institute site.  There’s also an essay by the philosopher Charles Taylor I had to re-translate into English on the same site here (all because the original got lost and the Polish edition was the only one left).

z9433517AA,Ks--prof--Jozef-Tischner

Jozef Tischner, the chaplain of Solidarity. He had a way of grabbing your attention. More about him in future posts.

Rick Perry is Right? The Myth of Religious Freedom in America.

Lumbergh: You can just go ahead and move a little bit to the left. Yeah, that's it.

Lumbergh: You can just go ahead and move a little bit to the left. Yeah, that’s it.

I don’t want to belabor the obvious when it comes to Perry’s right-ness.  What I want to concentrate upon is why he’s right about how freedom of religion has played itself out in the American public square.  Stephen L. Carter has written extensively about this issue, specifically how the metaphor of the wall of separation originated with Roger Williams (not Jefferson) and was always intended to protect religion from the interference of politics, not the other way around.    Some go as far as claiming we’re in a Stephen Carter moment right now:

“This should be the Stephen Carter Moment. For the past decade, the Yale law professor has been our most eloquent critic of strict separation of church and state. With vigor, he has championed the injection of religiosity into the public square. In his seminal 1993 book, The Culture of Disbelief, he decried the secularization of American life, the ‘trend in our political and legal cultures, toward treating religious beliefs as arbitrary and unimportant, a trend supported by a rhetoric that implies that there is something wrong with religious devotion.'”

Wall?  Which wall?

Whose religion? Which wall?

Lo and behold, Rick Perry said pretty much the same thing the other day in a press conference.  He has the Raw Story (predictably) panicking, “I’m proud we are standing up for religious freedom in our state.  Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.”

The Raw Story people should calm down because they’re swimming against the tide of American history.  David Sehat has argued in a book (a helpful summary by the author can be found here), to the discomfort of both left and right, that American religious freedom, or freedom from a particular religion, is a myth.  Certain American religious groups (Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Mormons) have always been legally excluded by certain Protestant groups.

You can be wrong most of the time, but you can’t be wrong all of the time.

Lennon rickrolled by Grumpy.

Lennon rickrolled by Grumpy.