Archive for the ‘Religion’ category

Against Renting out the Sistine Chapel to Porsche

October 18, 2014


I understand the Pope’s good intentions, and of course I believe people should give everything they can to the poor. But to me is a question of access to sacred spaces. It’s similar to the Luke 26:6-13 (“The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me”) controversy.

My objection isn’t related to fresco wear from nighttime vieweing–no matter how much hot air can Porsche executives emit, they won’t have the same effect as the prodigious numbers of people ‘shuffling’ through in daytime hours.

We’re likely wearing down the Chapel with all those people. But the totally open-doors policy the Church has taken with the place is beautiful. What is the Sistine Chapel? It’s a depiction of the whole progression of God’s relationship with mankind, of our beginnings and our end, painted at great personal cost by one of the greatest artists the West has ever known, in the center of the church founded by Christ to save mankind, and all you need to come inside and see it is to be a human being yourself. (And 8-16 euros for maintenance.)

Once you make access to this sacred space contingent on how much money you offer, it becomes something less than universal. It becomes just like everywhere else, where being a famous corporation and having a ton of money gets you farther in life. It’d be one thing if the Pope were using the money as a lure to make a full-court-press to the save the souls of all 40 tourists while they were in his house, but from this is being billed as a non-religious function, with a concert and a gala dinner, and already people are interpreting participation in it as a status symbol. I know the Vatican was used for much worse things back in the Renaissance itself but let’s not hold ourselves to such low standards. To me, the Sistine Chapel and other sacred art should be freely given and not for sale.


The Name of the Rose

September 3, 2014

The delightful meta-irony of this book is that it depicts medieval monks laboring to pass on the written memories of an ancient culture, just like Umberto Eco himself did by writing this. The Name of the Rose is the kind of rediscovery of lost knowledge for which its own protagonists are yearning, and what is unearthed is the importance and relevance of medieval thinkers.

The exciting abbey murder mystery is the story’s engine, and I’m not going to spoil it for you. Instead of giving a play-by-play of the travails of Ye Olde Holmes and Watson and their groundbreaking scientific method, I’ll get philosophical, just like the author does for the majority of the pages (consider yourself warned).

A Game of Thrones has sparked a positive reassessment of medieval people’s intelligence, but our popular imagination of the era is still perhaps best captured by the video of Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance”. Hence Eco’s portrayal of an abbeyful of intelligent people dedicated to thought, and of continent-wide intellectual debates moderated but also censored by great powers with their own selfish ends, is exhilarating.

It is commonly believed that the West as a whole fell from the Roman Empire into darkness and then the Catholic Church kept them there. It’s true that much knowledge was destroyed and lost over the years of war and economic disruption that ended the western empire, and many Catholic leaders failed, but it’s forgotten that the educated Romans we admire were always a minuscule percentage of the people in Europe. Even Rome itself was full of unschooled slaves, and the infamous superstitions of medieval people preceded Christianity. Meanwhile, the Church, while conservative, also safeguarded knowledge and provided education to all on a scale unlike any institution that preceded it, while also using its moral authority to protect anti-establishment liberals like the Franciscans.

Let’s look at three major debate subjects of the story—heresy, poverty, and the Book of Revelation—and their relevance to today.

Heresy: As long as there are organizations that uphold certain values, there will be inquisitions, i.e. “either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Eco provides us a valuable resource by helping us see how inquisitors thought and worked. Their interest in guilt by association, for example, reminded me of political articles like “X is connected to the Koch Brothers and thus is evil!” These sections must have been especially poignant in 1980, when the Cold War was still being fought and the Red Scare was only a few years back in the rear-view mirror.

Even more important than that, however, is the depiction of how people become heretics. Some are true apostates with a warped sense of divine mission (ISIS leaders), but others are merely lashing out at a society that has failed them by joining the nearest utopian anti-establishment organization they can find (the Taiping Rebellion). Hence crushing a heretical movement, either intellectually or physically, is not enough to prevent a reprise; institutions must also reform themselves to enfranchise the marginalized and keep them from becoming desperate.

Eco is also firm in his refutation of fanaticism, saying both the inquisitors and true heretics are guilty of the same sins, of wanting to burn the world down and trample people for their convictions. This warning was proved true in the 20th century just as it was in the 14th.

Poverty: Was Jesus poor? Did He even own possessions? At the time of this story there was a massive debate on this subject, which had great implications for how society should be organized and how secular rulers and the Church should conduct themselves. The Pope himself was on the wrong side, as several of the Franciscans point out; one character even says the Pope is the Antichrist, putting to rest any misconception you may have of the expansiveness of papal infallibility. (The politically motivated Papal Schism was not far away.) Ubertino’s disquisition on the nature of property is relevant today, and the dynamics of the debate between have-nots and their ideals holding forth against the haves and their control of the use of force is sadly familiar. It seems clear the inequality of medieval times stemmed not from ignorance of economic principles but rather from the rich’s desire to keep things as they were in order to stay on top. True Christians have always been threatened.

Revelation: After reading The Name of the Rose, I appreciated more than ever how important it was that the Bible contain the Apocalypse of St. John. It is not only comfort for the afflicted but also a scriptural safeguard against triumphalism and blind obedience to authority. Time and time again Eco’s characters refer to it to explain the suffering of the current times and to imply the authorities with whom they disagree are false prophets. Because Revelation is so easily read as prophecy, it also warns church leaders that history will not steadily and peacefully progress forward, but may instead be convulsed and wrecked by evildoers. Because it begins with admonitions to churches, it provides a platform for self-criticism.

Not to mention that on the artistic and literary side, the Book of Revelation gave religious license to surrealism that reverberates today.

The book’s apocalyptic frame, established very early by a vision by the narrator, Adso—who is himself a parallel of John in both the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation—is a fitting metaphor for the emerging intellectual battle between the Aristotelians the Church condoned by recognizing the truth of St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology and the Platonists to preserving beautiful ideals and respect for authority. The reasons for resistance to the new school of thought and fear of its consequences are amply explained and personified.

Eco upholds the values we now call modern but, crucially, also presents the point of view of the losing intellectual side, a modern parallel to the Catholic monks preserving the works of Muslim writers. This is a salvo against the tragedy of forgetting. That Western Europe had an officially protected and apolitical group preserving thought is a godsend, considering the much greater degree of historical and literary censorship in regions like China.

While showing characters that think like us (and why official historians would censor them from memory), Eco also respectfully portrays their cultural differences, so by reading this we can enrich our own knowledge of the palette of human experience. For example, he says of one scene: “I was not so much interested in ___ itself as I was to describe how a young monk would experience ___ through his cultural sensibility. So I made a collage of at least fifty different texts of mystics describing their ecstasies, together with excerpts from the Song of Songs. In the entire two pages that describe ____, there is hardly a single word of mine. Adso can only understand ____ through the lens of the culture he has absorbed. This is an instance of style, as I define it.”

This book is now inextricably linked to The Da Vinci Code. It’s a sad irony, as The Name of the Rose is roughly a million times better and more respectful of history. Eco himself has had a laugh about it: “The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.” The Name of the Rose doesn’t flow from scene to scene in the same way, but it doesn’t make any inventions that contradict with the historical record; it teaches about the past rather than heavy-handedly retrofitting the past to the present; and it encourages open-mindedness and skepticism rather than Gnosticism and faith in conspiracy theories.

So if you’re interested in the West of the 14th century, read this, and if you like a good mystery, even better.

And if you’ve already read this and want more fiction on monks preserving learning, check out A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller and “The Library of Babylon” by Jorge Luis Borges.

Has America Been Saved from Racism?

August 28, 2014

After reading Ezekiel Kweku’s piece ( I felt some Americans’ view of racism mirrors some Christians’ view of sin: we once suffered under it but have now been saved and sanctified.

Under this model, people suffer under sin, but after they accept Christ they are saved and bound for heaven. In the same way, America was plagued by racism, but the forces of good conquered and now equality is on the march. Even some who are not Christian have absorbed this way of thinking, and it can be innate: in Taiwan the lifting of martial law and first presidential election are the moments some say the nation “became free, period.”

The “I Have a Dream Speech” and Obama’s Election are two of the most commonly recognized moments of the USA’s racial salvation, and it’s no coincidence that Martin Luther King and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama have been deified in the process.

We can all be Christlike, yes, and thanks to his leadership and many astute statements King in particular can be considered a national prophet. That said, we must remember that no one and nothing can “change everything” the way we would like it to. After the Resurrection itself sin persisted, even among Church members, as Acts and Revelation make clear, and people who once accepted Christ can still fall away, as Judas did. In US history, meanwhile, we can see clearly that African-Americans steadily -lost- rights and status between the end of the Civil War and the first World War, and that on police violence we’ve made zero progress at best since “Do the Right Thing” 25 years ago.

Personal conversions are real and moments of social change happen. On an absolute, universal level Christ has triumphed over sin. But on this earth nothing is final. Not the ultimate destination of our souls, nor the ultimate destination of our society either. We want a conversion or an election to decide everything. To be inspired by such moments afterward is good and natural. But our daily works, day after grueling day, are themselves crucial, as are daily examinations of conscience to reorient ourselves.

Pope Francis’s Wakeup Call in Korea

August 20, 2014


Pope Francis rarely gives speeches in English (like Asian youth, he is worried his English is too poor!) but he did for us in Korea and the above was the exhortation that he wanted to stick in our minds. For great reason.

But first let’s rewind a bit: I spent the weekend in Seoul to attend Masses Pope Francis said there. They were amazing. Most attendees came from countries where there are relatively few Catholics, so it was a joyful time for everyone to celebrate their shared faith, not just explain it, and make new friends from all over the place. There were spontaneous songs and dances all around, including some by a troupe of indigenous people from Hualien, Taiwan in traditional garb, and people from different countries so high they were jumping into each other’s pictures to say hello (so now our group is in the group photo for a big Korean seminary.) Many non-Catholics came to be a part of it all as well, and they were welcomed.

I saw the Pope with my own eyes thrice. The first time was as he was driven to the Seosumun shrine just outside Seoul’s old city walls to commemorate 124 martyrs who were killed there (echoing St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome). After that ceremony, he drove to the central plaza of Seoul to beatify the martyrs at a Mass with 800,000 attendees, and I followed him there on foot. We who were too far behind all watched the proceedings (Latin Mass, Korean subtitles) on giant Samsung LCDs mounted around the square.

At Seoul the police presence was extremely heavy, as if they thought we had all come to protest him: it seemed clear the Force’s methods and traditions had not significantly changed since the rule of the dictator Park Chung Hee. However, I was able to get much closer the next day, in a distant castle where thousands of Catholics had been killed over the course of a century of persecution.

He passed by on the Popemobile on a path 10-15 feet in front of me at the Asian Youth Day closing Mass for 40,000 people at Haemi Fortress. Each time he blessed us all (looking past cameraphones to people’s faces) and each time he was warm. As he approached youth would run toward the car yelling “Papa, Papa!” (He also said an Asian Youth Day Mass in a packed World Cup soccer stadium in Daejeon on Korean Liberation Day. He traveled there by high speed rail and only after the train got going did the conductor tell the hundreds of other passengers they were sharing a ride with the Pope!)

But the amazing thing about his trip is that his small-scale events had an even larger social impact than the aforementioned large-scale ones. When he wasn’t at Mass praying and blessing, he was meeting and a long lineup of the marginalized–families of children killed in the April ferry disaster, women forced into sex slavery during World War II, the elderly, disabled, and sick–and giving them love and concern. He spoke about social problems close to home like youth suicide–old as he is youth relate to him because he knows what they’re worried about. He met the President of Korea as well, but mostly the pontiff was with the least of our brothers, bringing journalists along with him to get them in the headlines, and saying loud and clear whom he wanted to receive more attention.

Korea is getting richer and richer and the Pope came and spoke about emerging problems people had started to feel and to tell them to do something about it, the way their forefathers risked their lives for faith. “Do not be afraid to bring the wisdom of faith to every aspect of social life,” he said. He also urged us to discern “what is incompatible with your Catholic faith … and what aspects of contemporary culture are sinful, corrupt and lead to death” and instructed us to look out for the elderly, poor, and sick.

Some people don’t want to get too involved in society or in politics, which is the structuring of society. They just want to live their lives. However, I’ve often thought, of late, that in free societies the people who can most afford to do this are those who haven’t yet felt politics and society crushing them. In other words, politics is abstraction for the fortunate, but it’s urgent for the unfortunate.

I think Francis in telling us to wake up was saying anyone who can afford to come out and see him can also afford to act. And I pray we all do! Perhaps I’m paranoid but my reading of social trends tells me that not only is there more than enough for Christians to do for others; there are also vises tightening on everyone, and we need to recognize them for what they are. Youth, wake up, and don’t despair. The Cross has the same power over death as ever.

A Pope Surrounded by Wolves

February 22, 2012

Today is Ash Wednesday.

Consistory in St. Peter's BasilicaA moment at the consistory on the 17th, during which 22 new cardinals were proclaimed, including the Spaniard Santos Abril y Castelló, in St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo by Tony Gentile of Reuters.

A Pope Surrounded by Wolves
Intrigues and power struggles are brewing over the succession of the old and infirm Benedict XVI
El País: Un Papa rodeado por lobos
Pablo Ordaz reporting from Rome February 18, 2012

They say that Pope John Paul II was once asked, “Your Holiness, how many people work in the Vatican?” and the Pole Karol Wojtyla, the Pope from 1978 to 2005, ironically answered, “About half of them.” Now we know – following this joke that wasn’t really a joke – what the other half dedicates itself to. For some weeks now, the Vatican has been in a commotion over a series of leaked secret documents that have brought the Holy See’s spokesman, Federico Lombardi, to admit that the Church is suffering from Vatileaks. The publication of an internal denunciation of corruption and a strange conspiracy to kill Benedict XVI exposed naked power struggles between those faced with the possibly imminent end of his papacy. Although he represents God on Earth, Joseph Ratzinger is in fact a sick man about to complete his 85th year of life. In the words of L’Osservatore Romano, he is “a shepherd surrounded by wolves.”

The wolves, although dressed in purple, are excited by the smell of blood. Shepherd Ratzinger already stated two years ago, in an interview with Peter Seewald that was converted into a book, that “if a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.” Is Benedict XVI thinking of stepping down on his 85th birthday April 16 or the seventh anniversary of his papacy three days later?

Maybe only he and God know, but what is very clear is that, given this possibility, the candidates to succeed him have started to fight like men for his divine post. Or to be more specific, like Italian men. Both the surnames that litter this story of intrigues and low blows and the arms chosen for the duels are purely local. There is strong reason for this: the Chair of Peter has been occupied by foreigners since 1978. Isn’t high time already for the Holy Spirit to turn his gaze to an Italian at the next meeting of the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel?

The power struggle in the Church’s headquarters is already playing out – in a manner that is unprecedented and painful for the many true men of faith – in the pages of the papers. The stories are being treated like the latest leaks of the uncouth scandals of Silvio Berlusconi. The first blow came with the disclosure, on a television program, of a letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the current Papal Nuncio (Envoy) in the United States, in which he told the Pope about various cases of corruption inside the Vatican and requested that he not be removed from his post (at that time) as Secretary General of the Governatorato – the department in charge of business tenders and supplies. Viganò was sent far from Rome, nevertheless. The second link took the lid off a supposed plot to kill the Pontiff. The newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano published a letter sent to Benedict XVI very recently by the Colombian cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos in which he wrote that the Italian cardinal Paolo Romeo, Archbishop of Palermo (Sicily), had taken a trip to China, and while he was there, he commented that “the Pope will die in 12 months.” But that wasn’t all. According to the Colombian bishop’s letter, written in German and sealed as “strictly confidential”, the Archbishop of Palermo spoke freely about supposed Vatican secrets, about how the Pope and his number two, Tarcisio Bertone, were going to be killed, and that the Pope was leaving everything tied up so his successor at the head of the church would be the current archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola.

How much of this is truth and how much is falsehood? It could be all of one or all of the other. Perhaps the only certain thing is that a sector of the Vatican curia, the caste of pontifical diplomats, thinks the current Pope has gone too far to promote transparency about Church finances and to cut out all trace of permissiveness toward the abuse of minors…too far and too fast for someone who, after all, is an 84-year old German, sick and alone, lost in a strange labyrinth of intrigue and low blows. For 26 years, the Vatican was ruled by a Polish Pope who was an expert in public relations. For the last seven, the leader has been an introverted German. It gives the impression that Italy has begun its reconquest of the Chair of Peter.

What Does the Bible Have to Say About Democracy?

February 12, 2012

原文:Original Chinese Language Article
Featured on Front Page of 電子報:ICLP Bulletin 062 (Feb. 1, 2012)

What Does the Bible Have to Say About Democracy?
English Translation of Chinese E-Bulletin Article by James Smyth

Christians have actively participated in American politics since colonial times. Unfortunately, Jesus never mentioned the Republican or Democratic Parties, so the question of what political views Christians should have is a thorny one that can even make believers come to blows. Left and right wing advocates each have their own political interpretations of Bible passages like “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common ” and “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” and “Slaves, obey your human masters in everything.”

But very few Americans have discussed the following Bible story.

After the Israelites returned to Canaan from Egypt, they established a nation that was free and independent for 400 years. They had no kings. Besides times of crisis, when a “Judge” would emerge and temporarily lead the country, the twelve tribes were free to govern themselves.

But when Judge Samuel aged (around 1020 B.C.) the Israelites made an unprecedented request from him: that he choose a king to rule them. Samuel strongly opposed them, but God told him to “listen to whatever the people say. You are not the one they are rejecting. They are rejecting me as their king… Now listen to them; but at the same time, give them a solemn warning and inform them of the rights of the king who will rule them.”(1)

The next time Samuel met with the Israelites, he warned them (abridged): “The governance of the king who will rule you will be as follows: He will take your sons and daughters into his service. He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his servants. He will take your male and female slaves, as well as your best oxen and donkeys, and use them to do his work. He will also tithe your flocks. As for you, you will become his slaves. On that day you will cry out because of the king whom you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you.”

But the Israelites persisted: “No! There must be a king over us. We too must be like all the nations, with a king to rule us, lead us in warfare, and fight our battles.”

Israel had three kings over the next hundred years, two of which were outstanding and devoted themselves to the glory of the kingdom. The fourth king, however, was incompetent, and because of that the nation split in two. What’s worse, most of the kings who ruled both the northern and southern states after that were weak and corrupt, causing Israel’s international standing to decline. Two hundred years after the death of Samuel, the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrian Empire, and one hundred fifty years later, the southern kingdom was swallowed up by the Babylonian Empire. Israel would not win its independence back until 1949(2).

I think that what this story can communicate to Americans is that sometimes a people voluntarily give up their freedom in exchange for something else like glory or security. The younger President Bush, a Christian, deeply believed that freedom was the desire of every human heart, so he thought that after the U.S. liberated Afghanistan and Iraq, their citizens would happily cooperate with America. Instead, the American military sunk into a quagmire.

What this story says to Christians about democracies as a whole is that sooner or later, their citizens will exchange freedom for national power, safety, welfare, or some other good. The same thing will eventually happen in the United States of America, the Land of the Free. Even though many Americans believe that government’s primary responsibility is to protect the freedom of the governed, and many believe that the U.S. is the freest country in the world, the American government’s grasp on its citizens tightens year after year (its airport security measures are just the most visible example) because the demands the citizens make to the government sometimes necessitate the sacrifice of personal liberty. The history of the Kingdom of Israel is a reminder to American Christians that though they may willingly give up precious liberty in exchange for glory or security, they will not be able to preserve that glory or security forever.

(1) Biblical quotations are from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website.
(2) The country declared its Independence in 1948 but had to defeat four invading armies immediately after that.

Departing Spanish Government Proposes Exhuming Franco if Church Gives Consent

November 30, 2011

Valley of the Fallen

Departing Spanish Government Proposes Exhuming Franco if Church Gives Consent
Jáuregui requests the Rajoy government, “Please do not stash this report in a drawer”
El País: El Gobierno en funciones propone exhumar a Franco si lo autoriza la Iglesia
Natalia Junquera reporting from Madrid November 29, 2011

Thirty-six years after Franco’s death, the departing government yesterday proposed lifting the 1500 kg granite gravestone under which he is interred, exhuming his remains, and submitting them to his family. So recommended a commission of experts which presidential minister Ramón Jáuregui, six months before the election, charged with creating a plan to make the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) something different from what Franco intended it to be: a monument to himself and his victory in the Civil War. But it would be difficult to complete this task because of another condition the commission established for the removal of the dictator from the mausoleum: the authorization of the Catholic Church.

The Church was invited to the commission, but at the final hour, the Cardinal of Madrid, Antonio María Rouco Varela, retired his representative there, Archbishop Emeritus of Pamplona and Tudela, Fernando Sebastián. When asked about the movement of Franco’s remains, the episocopal conference referred the question to the Archbishop of Madrid, whose spokesman responded, “We have no comment.” The anthropologist Francisco Ferrándiz, a member of the commission, believes it is possible the Church will give its authorization: “if it opposes despite the government’s desire to remove [the remains], the Church would become the dictator’s custodian.”

Another indispensable and insuperable condition is the consent of the Popular Party, which would have to spend at least 13 million euros to “make the premises decent.” “I request that the Mariano Rajoy administration please not stash this report in a drawer,” Jáuregui pleaded yesterday in La Moncloa after presenting the signatures of the presidents of the commission, Virgilio Zapatero (president of philosophy and law) and Pedro González-Trevijano (rector of King Juan Carlos I).

The two met recently with the dictator’s daughter. Carmen Franco assured them that her father had never said he wanted to be buried in the Valley of the Fallen and that the decision was made by the Arias-Navarro goverment. In any case, she asked the commission that the remains of her father remain where they are. In the understanding of the commission, however, the wishes of the family, as opposed to those of the Church, are not binding.

An important group in the commission has been convinced from the first that it would be impossible for the Valley of the Fallen to have any other meaning without moving Franco’s remains to another location, as this newspaper wrote in June. Ultimately, three experts (González-Trevijano, Herrero y Rodríguez de Milón, and Feliciano Barrios) redacted a private vote against the exhumation of the dictator because they thought it would “contribute to dividing and radicalizing public opinion.” This is the only point over which there is not unanimity. But the meetings have been long. “All day, sometimes,” Ferrándiz admits. No member of the commission has received monetary renumeration.

Emilio Silva, president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, believes the government can do without the authorization of the church. “It would be like if a hospital with a chapel asked for permission from an episcopal conference to operate.” He doesn’t believe the plan will be brought to fruition. Nor does the State Federation of Forums for the Recovery of Memory, which on the anniversary of the death of the dictator gathered in front of the Valley of the Fallen with a girl dressed up as Franco who said, “I see that I left everything tied up, and tied up well.” It also asked: “Why doesn’t the government do what Angela Merkel did in Germany some months ago: demolish the tomb of Hitler’s lieutenant, incinerate his remains, and throw them in the Baltic so the place wouldn’t become a site for Neo-Nazi pilgrimage?”

The removal of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen would be consolation for the family members of Republicans buried there without the families’ consent and which want to recover their remains. The forensic scientist Francisco Etxeberria corroborated with a petition by the families that the crypts have deteriorated; according to two other forensic scientists sent by the government, it is now practically impossible to make individual indentifications of remains.

The commission, even so, recommends the government “dignify” the cemetery of the Valley of the Fallen, the largest communal grave of Franquismo, where nearly 34,000 people are entombed. The cemetary would become public, and a “meditation center” would be established in the area so family members who do not profess to the Catholic faith can feel “comfortable”, according to Virgilio Zapatero.