Sunday, September 17, 2006

Insecurity, and authority

I've had an interesting day today; which is a bit unusual, since I prefer my Sundays to consist of relaxation and football.

Anyway, why has this day been interesting... well...

Mel was raised in a protestant church, but she rejected their "teaching" many years ago. I was raised, and confirmed as a catholic; but I left the church soon after my confirmation.

Of course, being me, that didn't mean I left my religious education behind. I left the church for political and personal reasons, having to do with egos, dogma, coverups, and in general what I consider to be mis-use and abuse of authority.

I continued to study theology, and the history of the church; both to understand where the church and I differed; and to increase my general historical knowledge, because I find history in general fascinating, and in particular I find the history of the church (and religion) second in my interest only to the history of warfare.

Anyway, lets just say that I am well educated on both the theological, and historical background of the catholic church. No, I'm not a theological scholar, but, being me, I've learned as much as I possibly could.

My wife has decided to convert to Catholicism; and I've decided to come back to the church. As part of that, she is going through the RCIA (Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults); and I am going through it with her, as her sponsor.

The RCIA process in our parish is a 39 week process, lasting from last weekend, until Easter vigil; and then some followup sessions.

The RCIA process consists of several parts, the first of which is "Inquiry". In this phase, the petitioner to the faith is given basic instruction about the tenets of the faith, and the are encouraged to ask questions. The purpose of the inquiry period is to determine whether Catholicism is really RIGHT for you.

Now, some background on the people coming to this class. Most of them are either previously non religious, the rejected the church as a child before their confirmation, or they are coming to the church from various protestant denominations. In this, there are some very important questions that are being asked, and issues that must be reconciled, for people to be able to honestly decide whether they can come to (or come back to) the church.


In todays session questions were raised about two rather important subjects: Biblical Literalism, and the Crucifix.

The people who are leading this class are good people. They are very sincere in their faith, and in their enthusiasm to evangelize it. They are nice people.

They are also very poor teachers.

This class is supposed to be a group of communicants coming together to share their knowledge of, and questions about, god, and Christ.

Neither of these questions were answered... really at all at first. When the questions were asked, the instructor simply restated the "faith fact" that she had just said, which raised the question in the first place.

The first question was on the crucifix, and on religious icons in general. One of the major differences between the majority of protestant theology, and catholic theology; is that many protestants believe that religious icons are equivalent to graven images.

Many protestants believe that when Catholics pray to the crucifix, they are in effect worshipping a false idol. In reality the crucifix is a symbol that helps remind us of Christs nature as both man and divine, and his suffering; and we use this reminder to help us in a deeper understanding of god and Christ. We are not worshipping the cross itself, we are using the cross (and other religious icons), to help us express our connection to god.

The protestant principle (And movement that grew out of it), against religious icons, is called iconoclasm; and is rooted in the objection to the o'erweeing pride, and decadent corruption of the European church in the reformation period.

The reformers believed (with some justification), that the church had become more concerned with gold, and trappings than they were with faith.

Now, in the 400 some years since the protestant reformation began; the catholic church has undergone it's own internal reformation. Yes, the symbols and icons are still there, but the corruption and decadence which prompted the iconoclasm movement in the first place was expelled from the church long ago.

Only many protestant churches preach that the catholic church is a whore; raising graven images of gold in place of god; and caring more for wealth than the soul. This is a POLITICAL posture of these churches, to attack the catholic church. It little basis in either theology, or in current secular reality.

This particular piece of preaching is so pervasive, that it is taken by many protestants to be completely true. It is absolutely critical to understand this context, and to refute this argument.

This RCIA class is being led by a husband and wife team; with the wife doing most of the instruction.

The When the question was asked "How does the church reconcile the protestant argument that the crucifix is contrary to the second commandment?", the answer the instructor gave
was nothing more than a restatement of the original statement, in effect saying "It's this way, because the church says it's this way". Really no effort was made to answer this womans genuine, and important question.

Well, I was a bit irritated by this. One of the reasons I (and many thousands of others) left the church in the first place was this particular attitude. The whole purpose of the RCIA process, is meant to educate people about Catholicism, and to answer their questions. When those questions are not only not answered, but effectively dismissed by an argument to authority, that drives people away from the church.

In any event, I objected to the answer given. I didn't say "hey that's wrong" or anything, what I said was "Well, don't you think this protestant teaching that we 'worship icons', is theologically wrong? That it's primarily anti-catholic politics, or misunderstanding?"

Well, the husband apparently took this as a rebuke to his wife, and he snapped at me "let us teach the class".

Fine, go ahead and teach the class, but this isn't second grade; we're equals here, and we're adults here.

Anyway, a few minutes later, the instructor didn't know the Latin for what INRI meant on the crucifix. She had to resort to her notes, so I said "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum", which of course means "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews".

When I said that, again, the husband snapped at me.

Finally the question on biblical literalism came up, and again the instructor answered by simply restating the original discussion point.

This time someone else (actually two other people), tried to give better, more complete answers here; and several of us began discussing it.

Anyway, after the class, I was talking with Mel about how dissatisfied I was with the instruction, and the behavior of the teachers. It's clear they have their set, and their routine, and they are incapable of handling anything outside of it. They "know" what they are teaching by rote, and can't deviate from the subject. They don't understand the reasoning behind these things, but think that their understanding is complete, because they have read the book.

This is the worst kind of pseudo knowledge. It isn't even book learning, it is worse than memorization, because with rote memorization you don't have the illusion of wisdom.

A few minutes a go, actually just after I hurt my knee, I got a phone call from the husband half of the team. He said that he didn't think I was wrong in what I was saying, but that I was "challenging and undermining their authority", and that "if I have something to add, or a problem with what has been said, I should wait 'til later".

Well now...

I politely explained to him that I didn't see it that way at all. That this inquiry period is critical to the petitioner, and that they NEED good answers here; that the answers given were not only poor, but they are specifically off putting to people who are already trying to overcome anti-catholic and anti-religious sentiment.

I also stated that I didn't believe there was any issue of "authority" here; that we are all equals in this class; and while they are running the thing, we are all adults here. This class is supposed to be a period of inquiry, and free and open instruction; where we are all free to share our ideas, and experiences of faith.

He said to me "Well if you feel that way, then maybe you should find another class, at another parish. We worked on this script that we follow for weeks, and we don't want it disrupted with inappropriate questions or comments. The father didn't ask YOU to teach this class, he asked US".

I was ANGRY at this point, and clearly he was very angry with me. He felt that I was threatening his, and his wifes position; and he didn't seem to give a damn about god, and about instructing these people properly.

I love this parish. In fact, the feeling of this parish is part of what prompted me to return to the church. I'm not leaving it because of some insecure ass, and his ignorant wife. But 15 years ago, I would have.

I'm really both angered, and saddened by this; because they mean well. They are clearly sincere in their faith; and they don't understand what they re doing wrong. They simply don't understand what I'm trying to say, or why, and they are reacting against it.

In the process, I fear they are driving people away from the church.

I tried to explain this to him, but his heart and his mind was closed against me. To him I was nothing more than a threat to his assumed authority.

I am not normally one to sit down for this sort of thing; but for the moment I'm going to sit down, shut up, and let them do their "job". In the mean while, I'll be instructing Mel privately, sharing my experience, and answering others questions as honestly and completely as I can...

Which is what they should be doing.