Tag Archives: Roman Catholicism

Science of the Immaterial

One of the truly frustrating things for the honestly curious is a lack of good resources. Specifically here I’m talking about ghosts. More generally, about the supernatural. “Don’t worry,” laugh the reductionists, “there’s no such thing.” But some of us are seriously curious. Those who are willing to admit candidly the events of life will eventually confess to things they can’t explain. People have been seeing ghosts since at least the Stone Age, and yet finding a serious, non-dismissive approach to the topic can be annoyingly difficult. Curious about the background to the film The Conjuring, I wanted some kind of objective treatment to the Perron family haunting. One of the girls involved has written a three-volume treatment, but that will take some time to get through. So I turned to the investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren.

The Warrens were (Lorraine is still alive) some of the world’s first ghost hunters. Self-taught and deeply religious, they referred to themselves as demonologists. Lay Catholics, they couldn’t perform exorcisms, but they could assist in them. Apart from the Perrons, they investigated Amityville, the haunted doll Annabelle, and the Snedeker house, and many other famous cases. A guilty pleasure read, Ghost Hunters, written by Robert David Chase, along with the Warrens, thumbs through several of the investigations. When all is read and done, however, people who claim to know better accuse the hauntings of hoaxing and since there is no arbiter, the curious are left with that unsatisfying state of “he said, she said,” but no real answers. Ghost Hunters contains a potpourri of cases, mostly of demonic possession. Nothing about the Perron family, though.

No doubt much of the hoopla around reality television ghost hunting is clever marketing and nothing more. Even the acclaimed Ghost Hunters were caught gaming the system a little on their Halloween specials. That doesn’t stop people from seeing ghosts, however. Some academics have attempted to address the issue and soon find themselves in untenured positions (so much for freedom of speech) or mocked by their more “serious” colleagues. What ever happened to old fashioned curiosity? Materialism isn’t the only show in town, is it? We need treatments of the subject that move beyond the anecdotal. It’s difficult to get a ghost into the machine, apparently. Science hasn’t figured out a way to study the immaterial yet. Until it does, those who want to know the truth will be left relying on those who make a living by addressing questions even empiricists fear to ask.

Alt Bible

A friend recently sent me a story from Anonymous titled “Why Did The Vatican Remove 14 Books From The Bible in 1684?” This piece reminded me of just how rampant biblical illiteracy is in this Bible-worshiping culture. To begin with the obvious, Roman Catholics are the ones who kept the Apocrypha in their Bibles—it was Protestants who removed the books. No doubt, retaining the Deuterocanonicals was a rear-guard action of the Counter-Reformation, but still, if you’re going to complain about the Papists it’s best to get your biblical facts straight. The story is headed with a picture of The Key to Solomon’s Key. Ironically, Solomon’s Key is actually an early modern grimoire that the author seems to think is the same as the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the books of the Apocrypha. Reading through the post it was clear that we have an Alt Bible on our hands.

(For those of you who are interested in the Key of Solomon, my recent article in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on Sleepy Hollow discusses the Lesser Key of Solomon, a famous magic book. It features in one of the episodes of the first season of the Fox series and, I argue, acts as a stand-in for the iconic Bible. One of my main theses (don’t worry, there aren’t 95 of them) is that most people have a hard time discerning what’s in the Bible and what’s not. But I obviously digress.)

The post on Anonymous states that the Bible was translated from Latin to English in 1611. The year is partially right, but the facts are wrong. The translators of the King James Bible worked from some Greek and Hebrew sources, but their base translation was the Coverdale Bible which had been translated into English and published some eight decades before the King James. Myles Coverdale relied quite a bit on German translations, but the King James crowd went back to the original languages where they could. The KJV was published in 1611, but the translation from Latin was actually something the Catholics preferred, not Protestants. The Vulgate, attributed to and partially translated by Jerome, has always been the favored Roman base text. Ironically, and unbeknownst to most Protestants, the King James translation did include the Apocrypha. I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but they certainly make a lot more sense when the known facts align without the Alt Bible unduly influencing the discussion.

Nazi Religion

CatholicismRootsAs a lifelong pacifist, I’ve never been a fan of war books. Indeed, war seems to be to an utterly useless waste of life and a source of herculean suffering. The fact that wars happen, and books about them depress me, causes me to avoid them. Still, Derek Hastings’ Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism is less about war and more about, as the subtitle phrases it, Religious Identity and National Socialism. As I read through this history of the early Nazi movement, it occurred to me that this was probably the first actual book I’ve ever read about it. My knowledge of the Nazis had previously come from articles, movies, and documentaries. And Hogan’s Heroes. Being largely of germanic pedigree, I suppose I bear some residual guilt. I have to remind myself that my ancestors had left Europe before Germany had even existed as a unified state. I like to think they would’ve left during the rise of the Nazis, if they hadn’t already left generations before.

In any case, I had no idea of how the Third Reich dealt with organized religion. I have heard anecdotal opinions from time to time that the Catholic Church should have been stronger in its condemnation of the atrocities that wartime Germany perpetrated, but I had no sense of their official outlook toward each other. Hastings makes clear that although Catholicism and Nazism came to distrust each other implicitly, at the beginning of the Nazi movement they were considerably more chummy. In fact, anti-Semitism was something they had in common. Many of the early member of the party were Catholics—some of them priests—who felt an accord with the developing ideology. As Hitler’s rise to power increased, his personal antipathy to Christianity widened the growing gap between his own outlook and that of the early Catholic Nazis.

The book has no schadenfreude for the church, however. This is academic history. As Hastings notes, few studies have focused on the early developments of Nazism. In today’s political climate, that struck a chord with me. It seems vitally important to be aware of how such movements start so that we can recognize them as they attempt to rise again. I have little confidence, reading the news, that we are any better in the 2010s than people were in the 1920s when political instability, economic distress, and hatred of those who were different led to a reactionary, fascist regime. Could it happen again? I look around at a culture in love with guns and endless, selfish gain, and distrust of those of different ethnic origins and I wonder. The early stages are, I think, the most crucial to recognize. Surely no German Catholics could’ve anticipated just what Nazism would become.

Holy Seer

SeerOfBaysideHands up, all who’ve heard of Veronica Lueken. Maybe one of you in the back? I have to confess to having been in the “Veronica who?” crowd until reading Joseph P. Laycock’s The Seer of Bayside. The subtitle would have made the difference: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle to Define Catholicism. It’s a fascinating story. Lueken, a Catholic laywoman in Bayside, Queens, began to have visions of the Virgin Mary. This was in the days of Vatican II. Lueken was a traditionalist who felt the reforms were misguided, and found Mary to be on her side. She grew a large following during her outdoor vigils, eventually becoming so popular that people bussed down from Canada and in from other states to join her. The neighborhood association complained, and, some say, planned to assassinate the seer. The movement, known as Baysiders, eventually moved their vigils to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where it—or they—continue to meet.

Critics of religion tend to claim believers credulous. The Catholic Church, however, has been notably reluctant to approve of Marian apparitions. Lueken’s visions and her movement were condemned by the authorities, but now, even two decades after her death, two groups of her followers continue to meet. I’ve read quite a bit about Marian apparitions over the past couple of years. As Laycock points out, Marian apparitions are frequently classed with the paranormal since anomalous events often accompany them. It is no different with Baysiders. They claim healings and other unexplained events associated with their devotions, including mysterious lights on Polaroid photographs taken during services.

How are rational people, especially non-Catholics to make sense of this? Obviously one can say that the thousands who’ve claimed to witness such miracles throughout history were simply mistaken. Or deceived. Or one could suggest that there may be more to this old world than we’re generally willing to admit. Laycock takes his book in a different direction by asking the salient question of who gets to decide who Catholicism is. Protestants have no single center like the Holy See, and fractions do what fractions do. They divide. Hierarchy hath its privileges, of course. Rome declares the Baysiders in error. Each side, as is to be expected with religions, claims that it is correct. It seems that only Mary knows the real answer.

Monk over Matter

ManWhoCouldFlyPeople can think with their emotions. At a young age we begin formal schooling to teach us the rational ways that we must develop to live in society. Emotions are trained, tamed, and sometimes repressed as we are taught that “higher brain” functions are what make us distinctly human. Even in our supremely rational world, however, we can’t figure out consciousness. It remains elusive, provocatively bordering on the supernatural, and the experience of being human gives the lie to consciousness being emergent from a physical brain. These are the kinds of issues that underlie the strange case of Joseph of Copertino. The subject of Michael Grosso’s recent book, The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation, Joseph may well be off the radar of most people. In fact, in the seventeenth century church in Italy, his presence was downplayed and hushed, almost as an embarrassment to Roman Catholicism of the day. Why? Joseph was known to levitate. In fact, his levitations were often in public and were witnessed by individuals whose credibility was not in doubt. With the Reformation going on, however, the last thing the church needed was a miracle.

The standard historical line of dealing with Joseph is to laugh and wave our hands in the directions of those credulous early moderns. They thought they saw him levitate, but it was all imagination. Even if we have to invoke mass hallucination. People just can’t levitate. Grosso’s book, however, takes a different approach to Joseph. Looking at first-hand accounts, carefully considering the political situation of seventeenth-century Italy, and being open to parapsychology, this book presents a very different portrait of the flying saint. There was nothing to be gained by hiding such a prodigy unless, as Grosso argues, there was actually something to the story. It may come down to a basic misunderstanding of consciousness, his book suggests.

No doubt The Man Who Could Fly will be simply dismissed by many. Those who dare to read it, however, will find a cogently argued, rational exploration of a man who was lifted by spiritual ecstasies in a way we have yet to understand. Grosso demonstrates that, depending on perspective, such events do not violate laws of physics so much as demonstrate that we have much yet to learn about them. Categorizing events as supernatural puts up an artificial barrier to exploring scientifically events that have evidence in the form of multiple witnesses. Obviously we can’t go back to the 1600’s and visit Joseph in some obscure convent where he’d been shuffled by church authorities to keep him out of the public eye. Even if we could there would be no way to prove his extraordinary gifts. When it comes to the life of emotion, the only way to accept the impossible is with belief. And at times belief may be the most rational response at hand.

To Nature, and Beyond

VaticanProphIt might seem odd to differentiate the supernatural from an established world religion like Roman Catholicism. After all, be premise of traditional Christianity is based on a miracle or two. Church officials, however, are not naive. It has been known from the early centuries of the church that although miracles are still from time-to-time proclaimed, they are a relative rarity. Few are claimed, like Jesus of Nazareth, to have the ability to summon the supernatural at will. When my wife gave me a copy of John Thavis’s The Vatican Prophecies, I wondered if this might be a sensationalist exploration of “the hidden Vatican” and its penchant for keeping things hushed. After all, the subtitle is Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age. Thavis, however, is one of the most even-handed writers on the topic I might imagine. Clearly respectful of the Catholic faith, he doesn’t go after any pet theories or conspiracies. He lets those in the church answer with their own words. And those words paint a fascinating picture.

Beginning with the concept of holiness, Thavis shows that the point of the spiritual life is not to seek signs. Nevertheless, signs are reported. Apparitions of Mary have a long history, as does the shroud of Turin. Those who write about such things often have a clear bias, but Thavis gives the facts, interviews those who know, and offers a narrative full of possibilities. The supernatural can take a darker turn, however, as his chapter on demons and angels demonstrates. Although demons have been cast into the outer darkness by science, it doesn’t prevent people from apparently being possessed. And of course miracles come under scrutiny, particularly in the context of making saints. Prophecy, in the sense of knowing the future, is the last major topic up for discussion.

The Vatican Prophecies is a curious book that seems neither credulous or overly skeptical. It’s more like reporting than it is declaring what is or isn’t possible. Yes, the Roman Catholic Church does still profess miracles, but a vast number of them that come up for testing fail. Scientists serve as expert witnesses and personal claims are not sufficient to win the day. Although there are a few characters in this account, the majority of those mentioned in the book are understated, thoughtful individuals who happen to know they can’t decide what really happens or not. Instead, they simply deal with it. For those of use who live in a world of uncertainty, this book is a most apt introduction to topics taken seriously by some very intelligent people.


In addition to music, Christmas has also been associated with seasonal foods. Unlike today, when we think of foods primarily in terms of either fast food or culinary sophistication, Christmas dishes of yesteryear often had religious symbolism. While singing an English carol, for instance, you might hear of figgy pudding. I tried my first when living in the United Kingdom and it was nothing like the images its name conjures. It is more like a dense cake made of raisins and dried fruit, set aflame to burn off the brandy. Sometimes it is topped with holly. According to an interview on NPR, the Christmas dessert, in addition to taking weeks to make, contains thirteen ingredients, to symbolize Christ and the apostles. The holly is to represent the crown of thorns, and the flames the passion. That’s a lot of theology to stomach. (In seminary I had friends who used food analogies for theological purposes, but I suspect they didn’t know it was such an ancient tradition.)

Christmas cheer, I would’ve been shocked to learn as a child, generally involved spirits. For example in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens reverses his entrepreneurial relationship with Bob Crachit over a bowl of smoking bishop. I had always supposed this was a kind of soup or stew, but, again NPR comes to the rescue with a piece about Christmas drinks. Smoking bishop was made of port, and, according to the NPR story by Anne Bramley, is of the class of Protestant drinks called “ecclesiastics.” These were various alcoholic drinks named after Catholic church offices that Protestants used to poke fun at the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Catholic tradition.


A Christmas Tree primer

It is difficult to conceive of anything more basic than food and drink. All living things require nourishment. It stands to reason that when religious sensibilities began to appear that they would certainly be associated with the necessities of life. Holidays, as necessary breaks from the mundane, offer opportunities for bringing theology to the table. The most basic of ingredients, as any observer of biblical holidays knows, can contain more than just nutrients and roughage. There is a symbolism in what we eat. In these days when it is fashionable to declare religion nothing but stuff and nonsense, it can’t hurt to stop and look at what might be on our plate or in our cup before declaring it to be mere animal nourishment.