I distrust holiness, and believe that it is almost always a pose. There was a time, though, when I thought it was real, and even aspired to it myself. Indeed, some people thought I was holy, and I was secretly pleased when I overheard people saying that I was truly a “man of God.” But, pleased or not, I knew that I was far from holiness, if, indeed, holiness can be thought to be real thing. There may be people whose thoughts and feelings are, in the appropriate sense, “pure,” but if there are I have not met any, though I have met many who have pretended to be.
I’m not sure when I began to think of holiness as a sham, but it is probably related to two events, widely separated in time, when my father, a minister in the United Church of Canada, who spent twelve years as a missionary in India, and then several years in Bermuda, revealed the skull beneath the skin. I do not report this to disparage my father, who is not here to defend himself, though, truth to tell, he was always a distant and rather forbidding figure to me, though he mellowed a bit when Elizabeth and I were married, when both he and my mother made up — with some deliberateness, it seems to me now – for some of the misery they had visited upon me as a child.
The first event happened in Ujjain, one of India’s holy cities, on the Sipra (or Shipra) river, lined with temples and “bathing ghats,” where devout Hindus, as in Christian baptism, wash their sins away. We had been invited to dinner at the home of a professor at a local college. He was a Hindu, and, to show respect for my father and his faith, he had set up, at one end of the room in which we were to dine, a picture of Jesus, and he asked my father to put a garland around it. This picture, as I recall it now:
Flower garlands in India were an expression of respect and honour. When I left India in the summer of 1959 I was laden with garlands, and, as was the custom, I threw them into the first river we crossed, the Mahi, just south of Ratlam, in Madhya Pradesh. The Hindu professor meant this as a gesture of respect for another man’s faith, but my father balked, and refused, explaining that, for a Christian, to do such a thing would be idolatry. And in that one act, he had insulted, not only our host, but our host’s religion. The look on the man’s face, of shame and hurt feelings, has remained with me all my life. I was ten or eleven years old at the time. While the matter was quickly passed over, the cruelty that my father displayed in that moment called into question for me the sincerity of the faith he proclaimed.
The second event happened much later, in Bermuda, at the Arboretum. We were picnicking beneath a Calabash tree, and my son Alex had climbed the tree to shake some of the calabashes down. He was nine or ten years old at the time. While he was still in the tree a park official came over and told us that it was not allowed to climb the trees or to pick the calabashes; and my father, astonishingly, said that of course we would not, and had not done any such thing! Alex was still in the tree, and though he had stopped swinging the branches, he was clearly visible. The park official went away shaking his head in disbelief, the pointless lie hanging in the air as he left. There have been other occasions, of course, with others who have pretended to some sort of sanctity or holiness or goodness, and I have sometimes wondered what ordinary parishioners would say if they could have heard or seen their clergy in unmonitored moments of relaxation.
Holiness is, however, almost always beguiling. It is hard for most people to resist its appeal, and those reputed to be holy, who have, in some sense, transcended the human condition, risen above the faults and embarrassments that cling to us long after they have receded into the past, almost seem, by association, to confer holiness upon those with whom they come into contact, to raise them, too, above the ordinary human lot. Holiness thus provides cover for practically anything under the sun. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in his Slate article, “Faith-Based Fraud“, speaking of those for whom the death of Jerry Falwell had any significance:
The second such category is of slightly more importance, because it consists of the editors, producers, publicists, and a host of other media riffraff who allowed Falwell to prove, almost every week, that there is no vileness that cannot be freely uttered by a man whose name is prefaced with the word Reverend. Try this: Call a TV station and tell them that you know the Antichrist is already on earth and is an adult Jewish male [a claim made by Falwell]. See how far you get. Then try the same thing and add that you are the Rev. Jim-Bob Vermin. “Why, Reverend, come right on the show!”
The first category, by the way, was “credulous idiot.” And this is the problem with the very idea of holiness. It is the perfect cover for acts of cruelty and power. Why was it so easy for priests to get away with the abuse of children? For the simple reason that they had been “set apart,” because they were thought to be, in some sense, especially holy. They could even make sexual abuse seem like a holy thing.
I can remember the last episcopal election in which I participated, and how, during the process, after each vote was taken, time was set aside for “spiritual” reflection and prayer. The room was afloat on a sea of political division and contention, yet the underlying assumption was that the person who would be, by this process, elected, would be chosen by God, and therefore set apart and holy in a way that would confer a special “apostolic” authority. You can see the same thing happening in the Vatican right now, as the cardinals gather to elect a new pope, a much more august and ”sacred” assembly than the synods in which I played my part. While I am not an insider, and have little knowledge of the divisions and the ruthless jockeying for power that undoubtedly characterise the assembly, there is little doubt that this group of men is as human as any other gathering of men, and that the person chosen will be just as human and as fallible as you or I. Yet he will be called the Holy Father by the faithful, and every word he utters will be taken with the utmost seriousness and will govern the lives of millions.
It is this illusion, the illusion of holiness, that drives so much of the evil that prevails in the world. Go to any country where the writ the last two popes has truly run, and you will find misery. Countries that have accepted the idiocy of the Vatican’s “pro-life” agenda, which is, at its heart, the very expression of the holiness illusion, are places where women’s lives are at risk, and their freedoms abridged. I hate to pillory the same journalist two weeks in a row, but George Jonas puts his foot into it again, and shows, so clearly, that he simply doesn’t get it. Last week I pointed out how thoroughly confused he was about courage and freedom of speech. This week he falls for the holiness illusion — and he falls hard.
The article is entitled “Searching for one-size-fits-all religion.” After a bit of throat clearing, he tells the assembly of deluded men at the Vatican (for the article takes the form of advice to the conclave) that what we need from them is not change and relevance but reassertion. “[Y]ou’re not in the fashion business,” he tells them, knowingly, “You’re in the faith business.” And the difference is this. The faith business depends on changelessness, on being above the fray, being otherworldly – in short, on being holy. Listen:
You’re in the faith business. Restoring the church and hijacking it aren’t the same thing. Appearances and vocal demands to the contrary, you don’t have to be up-to-date.
And then he goes on to suggest that all the disparate complaining voices calling on the church to change, simply want the church
to bring the church’s doctrines more in tune with the complainers’ own philosophies.
This, Jonas tells the “sacred conclave,” should be resisted. Hitchens was right, you see, and Jonas is there amongst Hitch’s host of media riffraff gulled by the illusion of holiness. All you have to do is put “Reverend” before your name, or dress up in cardinal red, and what you say will be taken with earnest seriousness, even by George Jonas, who is not even a Catholic, or even, he says, really religious. Somehow, pretence alone confers on them and their thoughts and decisions an authority not possessed by “the complainers,” who do not want religion to restrict their “worldly ambitions.”
What a contemptible piece of special pleading this is! Let’s take, as an example, the concerns of Hans Küng, who, in a recent New York Times op-ed, “A Vatican Spring? ,” points out how recent the present Roman Catholic tradition of authority really is. The church, he tells us,
got along for a millennium without a monarchist-absolutist papacy of the kind we’re familiar with today.
Indeed, he goes on to tell us not to be
misled by the media hype of grandly staged papal mass events or by the wild applause of conservative Catholic youth groups. Behind the façade, the whole house is crumbling.
He calls the church “coldly ossified,” and speaks of Ratzinger’s pontificate as “marked by breakdowns and bad decisions.” Yet Jonas thinks that the church still speaks for God, that its prescriptions are somehow not of this world, that its rules are beyond criticism or dispute, and those who want to see change or reform in the church only want to have their selfish choices ratified by an assembly of men whose vision is somehow of eternal things.
Jonas uses Tolstoy as a crutch to tell his story. The complainers of Jonas’ imagination are like Helene Bezuhov, one of the central characters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, who, according to Tolstoy, thought that
the whole point of any religion was merely to provide recognized forms of propriety as a background for the satisfaction of human desires.
Jonas then goes on to say that Helene’s
standard is held up by men and women who, having acquired the liberty to do as they please, now demand religion to also applaud their moral choices. They want their churches, their priests, even the very Vicar of God, to approve and endorse what they do, or else they threaten him with irrelevance.
Quite aside from the fact that any claim to be “the very Vicar of God” is simply fatuous, by what mystery of logic does Jonas transform the thoughtful concerns of many who criticise the church, as not only morally out of touch, but also corrupt and power hungry, into something purely selfish and this-worldly, where “this-worldly” is clearly meant pejoratively and dismissively? By what right does Jonas claim that those who address themselves to the church’s moral shortcomings and its restrictive morality of pretended holiness are merely seeking to have their “worldly” choices ratified?
As if we can have other than worldly choices! It may be, as Jonas says, a journalist’s vocation to be opinionated, but is it also a journalist’s vocation to be stupid and unreflective? Has he simply not been paying attention? Did he not notice Ratzinger’s role in the cover-up of sexual abuse? Did it never occur to him that a celibate clergy, separated and set apart as it was, was bound to be a seething hotbed of sexual tension and loneliness, at the same time that it put these conflicted individuals above criticism? Did he never notice the church’s ideal of womanhood, both unattainable and insulting, expressed by the church’s veneration of Mary, and its inhuman reduction of women to their reproductive function? Does Jonas think that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is right when it speaks of homosexuality as a grave disorder? Does he really think that contraception should be condemned, that abortion is always wrong, or that people should be forced to die in ways prescribed by their diseases, and not in gentler ways of their own choosing? I do not know what Jonas’ moral views are, if he has any, but it is a calumny to suggest, as he does, that those who seek change in the authoritarian morality of the Roman Catholic Church are only seeking the ratification of their selfish ends and desires. This is the illusion of holiness busily at work amongst the media riffraff who simply fail to see the skull beneath the skin. Hitchens once said derisively of Falwell that, if he were given an enema he could be buried in a matchbox. Jonas is trying very hard to justify the same opinion of himself.