Monday, April 24, 2006

Opus Dei, TIME, and the McDonaldization of American sentiment

A friend of mine, a recent Catholic convert, came to me with the April 24 issue of TIME magazine, featuring on its cover the words "Opus Dei Code," an obvious spin-off of Dan Brown's notorious Da Vinci Code, and, beneath what looks like a torn away parchment, the image of a weeping Jesus. The issue featured an article, proporting to be a piece of investigative journalism by David Van Biema, entitled "The Ways of Opus Dei." "It's not the villain that The Da Vinci Code sets it up to be," a headline concedes. "But it has been a mystery. An inside look at the most controversial group in Catholicism." The article does everything it can to shock the McDonaldized sensibilities of the average American reader. The opening pages of the print article has a full-page photograph of the Opus Dei Vicar, Thomas Bohlin, smiling benignly at the camera across from an adjacent page sporting a full-page photograph of a small whip, the 'discipline,' used by some Opus Dei members as a form of penance and corporeal self-mortification. This should be enough -- of course! -- (TIME's editors doubtless thought) to make Jesus weep and shock the public, if no other dirt they managed to dig up on Opus Dei does the trick. Never mind that Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, despite its egregious misinformation and violence to the Christian Faith, doesn't make Jesus weep or shock the public -- so schizophrenic are the McDonaldized public sentiments of Americans these days. I think I understand fully my friend's reaction, as well as what TIME is up to in its studied endeavor to elicit reactions such as these. Here are my thoughts.

It's clear to me that TIME went after connotation and jarring imagery in order to attempt to shock and dismay and incriminate by suggestion. When you examine the real 'dirt' it managed to dig up on Opus Dei -- the real, hard facts -- was there really much more than this? What are the actual facts? A few circumstantial details about a corrupt turncoat FBI agent who sold classified data to the enemy. Criminal activity, to be sure, but how is that representative of the organization, any more than Judas is representative of Christianity (even though he was one of the Twelve chosen by Jesus)? A man who alleged irresponsible accounting practices in an Australian office, which were allegedly swept under the rug or smoothed over. Allegedly ... We don't know the facts. But even if it were true, what's the point? If it's true, it was clearly wrong, but does that make it institutional policy? A woman who tired of the constraints of Opus and bailed out after twenty years, blaming the organization. Sounds a lot those individuals who bail out of marriages after twenty years and blame the institution of marriage. Only Opus doesn't require a life-long vow, like the priesthood or a religious order, but a year-to-year renewable contract. No indelible metaphysical mark here: one can opt out, if one wishes, though it understandably may be difficult to prevent others from questioning one's wisdom in doing so.

There is no deep, dark secret to Opus Dei, no Byzantine intrigue to titillate the imagination, as much as Dan Brown's novel might have the public pandering after such titillation. It is a work devoted literally to the 'work of God' (Opus Dei), which here means the work of sanctification in each person's soul, each person's work, each person's family. It is 'coaching' in living a devoutly Catholic life. If there is anything shocking about Opus Dei, it is likely the tenor of this devotion, which might take a typical American's breath away, just as the sight of a Muslim family with its car parked on the shoulder of Hwy 321 between Granite Falls and Lenoir, NC, with its prayer rungs pulled out on the grass, all prostrated toward Mecca in prayer. What? People in the Tar Heel State in 2006 doing THAT??? Indeed.

In a post-Christian world, it's a shocking thing to secular society that there are theists at all. Among theists (like some Unitarians, Jews, and Muslims) it's often shocking that there are Christians who actually believe God could become a man, like Jesus. Among Protestant Christians, it's a shocking thing that there could still be Catholics who actually adhere to an organization that conducted medieval crusades and Spanish inquisitions and claims to trace it's founding by apostolic succession from the current pope back to Christ and the Apostles. Among American Catholics, it's shocking that there are still Catholics such as Opus Dei types, who actually believe the claims of their Church and take seriously a very traditional piety and discipline with a robustly male, Iberian tenor.

American Catholics have become so thoroughly Protestantized today, that they've practically forgotten what it means to be Catholic anymore. What's the definition of a 'sacrament'? "An outward sign of an inward grace." That's more than an individual sacrament. It's a whole outlook -- a way of seeing life and reality and the world. If you go to the Friday Stations of the Cross during the 40 days of Lent, you follow the priest around the interior of the Church genuflecting and repeating prayers that take your breath away. At the Fifth Station of St. Alphonsus Liguori's rendition, where one reflects on a reluctant Simon of Cyrene's enlistment in helping Jesus carry His cross, part of the prayers read:
"My beloved Jesus / I will not refuse the cross as Simon did: / I accept it and embrace it. / I accept in particular the death that is destined for me / with all the pains that may accompany it. / I unite it to Your death / and I offer it to You. / You have died for love of me; / I will die for love of You and to please You. / Help me by Your grace. / I love You, Jesus, my Love; / I repent of ever having offended You. / Never let me offend You again. / Grant that I may love You always; and then do with me as You will." (St. Alphons Ligouri's Stations of the Cross)
One way of praying the Rosary has us reflect on the mysteries in Jesus' life through the eyes of Mary, the poignancy of which needs no explanation when one considers that the Sorrowful Mysteries include Jesus' agony in the garden, scourging at the pillar, crowning with thorns, carrying of the cross, and crucifixion (one can hardly avoid recollecting Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ).

What I am trying to get at here is a dimension of Catholic piety and devotion that has been practically submerged over the last thirty or forty years in the McDonaldization of American Catholicism. Catholicism in modern America has become, in large part, innocuous. It tends to be easy, upbeat, convenient, and compatible. There are few Holy Days of Obligation other than Sundays anymore -- and our Sunday Mass obligation can be fulfilled Saturday evening so that Catholic men can go golfing like everyone else on Sunday morning. Catholicism doesn't require much in the way of self-sacrifice, discipline, humility, a zeal for souls, an other-worldly outlook, or a fear (as opposed to a superficial love) of God. The movie Dogma portrayed Jesus as our 'Buddy Christ.'

It used to be that Catholics had to fast from midnight Saturday until they received Communion at Mass Sunday morning. That fast has now been reduced to one hour before Communion. There is little guilt in Catholicism and virtually no fear of punishment, and everyone is virtually assured of going to heaven. What's to fear? Who goes to confession anymore? Whatever became of sin? If none of these things matter, furthermore, why trouble oneself to go to Mass at all? The music and homilies are pretty bad anyway.

Thus the few things that remain, as residual reminders of a former Catholic world strike us as rather quaint or strange, if not troubling. Fasting? Abstinence? But why? As if it's not bad enough that the Church should intrude into our bedrooms, why should the Church intrude into our dietary lives? What business is it of the Church's what I eat or how much? Days of both fasting and abstinence have been reduced to two -- Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, whereas there were numerous days in the ancient Church calendar when fasts and abstinences were imposed. Why have we reduced their number? Couldn't we just do away them altogether? Isn't this the 21st century??? Haven't we matured, become more knowledgeable, more educated, smarter? Or perhaps we're forgetting something -- something of which the Bible and writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and St. Josemaria Escriva ceaselessly remind us -- that life is war, or, as they were more apt to put it, a ceaseless spiritual battle. One's life is never a plateau. Perhaps even Bob Dylan glimpsed a dimension of this when he wrote, "He not busy being born is busy dying."

Where do sexual scandals of the kind and scale we've witnessed in the past few years come from? What are their causes and conditions? I can tell you where they're not likely to come from -- what causes and conditions are not likely to produce them. There's a chain of linked thoughts, dispositions, and behaviors that lead to such a results. It's not rocket science. Someone once said:
Sow a thought, reap an act;
Sow an act, reap a habit;
Sow a habit, reap a character;
Sow a character, reap a destiny.
Opus Dei offers rigorous 'coaching' in traditional Catholic virtues. One implements a 'plan of life,' in which one seeks to bring some order and spiritual discipline into his life. One forces himself out of bed early, rather than sleeping in. One cultivates daily habits of spiritual reading, mental prayer, and examination of conscience. One learns to master his appetites in little ways -- for example, by leaving a few bites of a favorite dish uneaten on his plate rather than asking for second and third helpings, scarfing down the last bite, and then licking the plate clean like a dog. Learning to say 'no' to little things trains one to be able to say 'no' to bigger, more difficult temptations. One learns to submit his fantasy life to the confessional, to bring the common sins of thought life under self-mastery and the governance of Christ. One learns to avoid common youthful temptations, like masturbation, and to confess those sins too, and to see how this, in turn, fosters purity in relationships with others. One learns to stop looking at others (and pornography) with the glance of a sexual predator. Fasting. Abstinence. Self-control. Prayer life. Confession. All of these help. How much chance of a Church-wide sexual scandal such as we've seen would we have had if the whole Church had been taking the problem of sin seriously in these traditional ways?

St. Paul writes: "But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway." (1 Corinthians 9:27) Where the King James Version here has "keep under my body and bring it into subjection," the later Revised Standard Version has "I pommel my body and subdue it." The New International Version says, "I beat my body daily." According to "Strong's Concordance," the word for "keep under" can mean beat or buffet (either one blow, or many blows). It also has a metaphorical sense of subduing, or annoying something into compliance, which is reflected in the words "keep under" of the King James Version. The larger context is St. Paul's discourse on "fighting the good fight" and "running the race" set before us as Christians (1 Cor. 9:24-27). Worth exploring.

Probably the images most shocking (and intended to be so) in the TIME article are that of the 'discipline' (the small, cord-like whip) and 'cilice' (the spiked chain -- actually a derivation of the ancient hair shirt, which originated in the region of Cilicia in Asia Minor), which some Opus members use as part of their spiritual self-mortification. Naturally this strikes us as extreme. We need to be aware, however, that there are whole traditions of 'mystical theology' and 'ascetical theology' in Catholic history of which contemporary Protestantism and secularism (and much of American Catholicism) know nothing. St. Thomas More of England wore a hair shirt under his garb as Lord Chancellor of England. He also used the 'discipline.' Hair shirts were worn by Saints Jerome, Athanasius, John Damascene, and many others. St. Catherine of Siena wore sackcloth and scourged herself three times daily in imitation of St. Dominic. St. Ignatius of Loyola wore a hair shirt and heavy iron chain. Even St. Therese of Lisieux -- the "Little Flower," famous for her "little way" and love of God -- fasted and used the 'discipline' vigorously, "scourging herself with all the strength and speed of which she was capable, smiling at the crucifix through the tears which bedewed her eyelashes," according to one of her biographers.

All of this will seem quite distant and even distasteful to us, given our habits and our times and our McDonaldized American sentiments. If we want to get beyond a study of our own knee-jerk reactions, however, there is good material available. For a start, more on the subject can be found in a good essay by Rev. Michael Giesler entitled "The Body's Forgotten Ally: A Brief Defense of Corporal Mortification," Crisis magazine (April, 2006). A good, brief biography of St. Josemaria Escriva before his canonization as a saint can be found on the Vatican website, entitled "Biography of Blessed Josemaria Escriva" (the Vatican website actually has a great deal more on him than this, published under the heading: Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, in more detail than I can reference here). If you're looking for somebody in the mainstream of American Catholicism whom even liberal, dissident Catholics respect, in order to find an 'impartial' biography, probably the best you're going to find is John L. Allen's Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church. Here is a review by a trusted Crisis magazine contributor, Russell Shaw, "Opus Dei Revealed."

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