Conversion is the most fundamental of human options. Some prospective converts who were on the verge of becoming Catholics, for example, have not been able to take that final step. And, many former Catholics have left with no intention of returning or of belonging to the Church. Perhaps people leave because of a “teaching which runs counter to their patterns of behavior. It may be an intellectual or emotional difficulty which calls for resolution.” (Avery Dulles, The Assurance of Things Hoped For, 250). We cannot know why people leave the Church and whether they have found other pearls of great price.
Today, we hear that people are Christian-ish, but not sectarian. Doing good to others—the horizontal relationships of society, locates transcendence for them solely in the present. The vertical relationship, the encounter with God in prayer is not considered so that prayer leads to service or others, and service leads back to prayer. Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey belong to this syncretic Christianity, civic, flexible, and easygoing. A doctrine challenged by science can be easily abandoned. (Ross Douthat, “Ideas from a Manger,” NY Times, Dec 21, 2013). This stance is attractive because one can claim to be a generic Christian without being affiliated with any one faith-tradition.
Recently, Bill Moyers interviewed Thomas Cahill, author of the series, “The Hinges of History.” Moyers was interested in the author’s views of the Jesuit Pope Francis as well as some insights into Cahill’s latest in the series: Heroes and Heretics. A brilliant writer trained by the Jesuits, Cahill was himself a member of the Society of Jesus for several years. Heroes and Heretics is not popular history, as advertised, but hugely entertaining rhetoric – high-class gossip suited to a cocktail party where the author holds forth on selective historical figures. Pages on Boccaccio, a nod to Dante! For Catholic clergy, he conveys a tone of vindictiveness painting them in dark sinister colors against a backdrop of eroticism. His sharpest derision however is reserved for St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, without ever mentioning how grace transforms nature and sublimates its negative qualities. Absent is Providence, expressed in the dictum that God writes straight with crooked lines. The book is diatribe.
The Bill Moyers’ interview, abbreviated here, went as follows:
Moyers: Is this pope a hero or a heretic?
Cahill: Well, in the book that I just wrote, most of the heretics are heroes, and most of the heroes are heretics. So it’s a little hard to tell . . . .
Moyers: It’s too soon.
Cahill: . . . I would say that the last several popes have been largely surprises.
Moyers: John Paul, Benedict?
Cahill: Well, let’s go back to John XXIII. The people who elected him thought that he would be an interim. He was a fat, old man. And he was very pleasant. And they thought he would just be pleasant. Well, they made a big mistake because John XXIII changed the Catholic Church and would’ve changed it a lot more, in my opinion, had he lasted a little bit longer. Then you got John Paul II [who] was elected because they thought he was a liberal. . . . Benedict, to tell the truth, mostly liked to sit at his piano and play Mozart, which is a nice thing to do. But it’s not very helpful to the papacy. . . . In his exhortation, Francis constantly speaks of Christians. He never talks about Catholics. He says [that] Christians have to go out and take care of the poor. Well, he’s talking to everyone. He’s not just talking to Catholics. He’s passing that by. Which is to me, extremely refreshing.
(Column continues below)
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Moyers: So where do you place yourself? Are you a believing Christian but not a practicing Catholic?
Cahill: I am a believing Christian who is equally at home and equally impatient and equally ill-at-ease in virtually every church.
Moyers: Why is that?
Cahill: I just don’t think that it matters that much. I think that . . . in the 16th and 17th centuries, we killed one another over doctrine. . . . Is it really necessary to kill one another? Couldn’t we just disagree? And then you have the beginning of a new era. And it’s time that we got past the largely silly divisions, theological divisions which really don’t count … because people don’t care about these things anymore.
Moyers: What do you think they care about? Or what do you care about?
Cahill: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. That’s Christianity. The rest of it isn’t worth a hill of beans.