Saints and Freedom

There’s a saying that all elections are local.  I suspect that’s true.  Location is important.  There are famous Americans not recognized in other parts of the world.  And there are, of course, local celebrities.  Having settled once again in Pennsylvania, I’ve taken an interest in local religions.  Although not part of the “Burnt-over District” of upstate New York, Pennsylvania, because of its early laws of religious liberty, has produced some noteworthy figures over the centuries.  And institutions.  When someone mentioned St. Vincent Archabbey, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, I was curious.  I’m not Catholic and even though I’d considered a monastic life, I really knew little about it.  St. Vincent is the largest Benedictine monastery in the western hemisphere, as well as the oldest in the United States.  

Image credit: Guerillero, via Wikimedia Commons (Copyleft Free Art License)

Latrobe isn’t far from Pittsburgh.  There is a strong Catholic presence in the area.  Like many Catholic institutions, it has a cluster.  St. Vincent College, also in Latrobe, must’ve sent me—in those days, print—a prospectus back when I was looking at schools.  I’ve known about it for a long time.  There’s also a seminary, also called St. Vincent.  Probably it’s largest claim to fame is that the Pittsburgh Steelers use the College (I suspect the seminary has no athletic program) for their training camp.  Monks and football players—they must have some interesting conversations.  I grew up thinking Catholicism was basically some other religion.  Fundamentalists, misunderstanding the basics of history, tend to claim that Catholics aren’t Christians.  Indeed, until the recent politicization of conservative Christianity, they wouldn’t have had much to say to each other.

Catholicism was frowned upon by the early colonists.  While seeking freedom of religion, what they really wanted was freedom of religion for themselves.  In good, charitable Christian fashion, many colonies tried to exclude those that believed differently.  Especially Papists.   Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, however, notably allowed freedom.  I’ve lived in Pennsylvania long enough to know that even legal freedom isn’t protection from those locals who’d rather not have Muslims or Hindus for neighbors.  And in all likelihood William Penn, a good Quaker, probably couldn’t imagine people of “exotic” religions wanting in.  Indeed, the majority of people in this hemisphere weren’t really even aware of “eastern religions” until the 1890s.  The religions here were forms mostly of Christianity and Judaism.  By 1846 the Benedictines could establish a college, monastery, seminary complex in western Pennsylvania.  And it would become the largest and oldest such establishment in a country that still doesn’t grasp true religious freedom.


Foreign Christianity

I’ve been reading about missionaries in Southeast Asia.  One of the things that has become clear to me is that as Christians moved into different cultures they perhaps didn’t realize just how their religion was being blended with a completely foreign worldview.  Catholic missionaries were particularly savvy about accommodating local outlooks.  Add the mass on top of them and you’ve got your converts.  What they were, perhaps unknowingly, doing was changing Christianity.  Yet again.  Monotheism has a myth of the pure religion.  The fact is that as soon as Paul disagreed with Peter Christianity had begun to splinter with each faction believing it had the pure form.  When this protean religion moves into other cultures with other ways of thinking, interesting new forms emerge.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Today there’s a lot of interest in Celtic Catholicism.  This is another example of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  Christianity, particularly in Ireland, took on a pronounced Celtic flavor.  It doesn’t always play by the rules, but as long as Rome’s okay with that, well, who’s to complain?  What is Catholicism?  What is Methodism?  What is Anglicanism?  It depends on where you join it.  Doesn’t that problematize those absolute truth claims?  Churches are savvy political players.  The rank and file believer has little idea what goes on behind closed doors.  They might be distressed to find out just how much bishops talk about budgets.  Theology is left to the public view.  No organization can survive without money and church leaders understand this.  Missionaries go to under-developed countries and make them capitalists.

People living in different parts of the world view life from varying perspectives.  Many see change as the nature of life where western religions see fixity.  Many religions know we’re reincarnated.  Western religions see one ride per ticket with souls ending up in a final holding place.  When it comes to eternity, people obviously want some security.  Even with reincarnation a badly lived human life can lead to a worse next life.  The question of what happens when such ideas come into contact with Christianity, or Islam, is a fascinating one.  Judaism, the root of monotheistic traditions, never really embraced missionary activity.  When missionaries encounter those whose very ways of thinking about life approach the question from a different direction, creative mixes are bound to occur.  It’s safe to say that when early Christians were sent out to “the whole world” they had no idea how big that world actually was, under the dome in which lived the sun, moon, and stars.  Nor had they any idea what interesting hybrid religions would emerge after their fertile preaching.


Empty Chair

I’m not a Roman Catholic.  Nevertheless, I admire much about the tradition.  Its perceived unchanged continuity with the past is a big draw.  Still, one of the largest issues most religions face as they evolve is that things change.  No religion can stop it.  Edward Jarvis’ brilliant Sede Vacante: The Life and Legacy of Archbishop Thục explores the life and possible theological motivations for one of the most fascinating people in recent church history.  Ngô-dinh-Thục became a Roman Catholic Archbishop in his native Vietnam.  He was the brother of Ngô-dình-Diệm, the first president of South Vietnam, and likely one of the reasons behind the Vietnam War.  In fact, Thục had two other extremely prominent brothers and the four of them formed a junta that ruled the country with authoritarian vigor and utilized all the corruption for which authoritarianism is famed.  They became enormously wealthy, they used torture and extortion to get what they wanted, and Thục supported all of this.

Eventually excommunicated (twice), Thục had to leave Vietnam.  Two of his brothers were arrested and assassinated.  After his self-imposed exile Thục attended Vatican II, the papers of which he signed, but his prominence faded.  Without his holdings in Vietnam he was poor, and in fact lived in poverty.  Then he started consecrating bishops for breakaway Catholic groups, including the strange sect of the Palmarians.  This led to his first excommunication.  Later in life, after restored to the graces of the church, he again started consecrating bishops for the Sedevanctantists.  These were Catholics who believed the Pope was invalid and his chair (sede) was vacant (vacante).  He was excommunicated again and, after moving to the United States, died in poverty.

I keep these posts brief enough that I don’t have space to spell out all the amazing angles from which this life could be viewed (read the book for that).  In our authoritarian-loving times, however, the nature of those who reject “modernization” stood out.  Many Sedevanctantists insist on the restoration of the Latin mass.  They somehow believe the Popes since about Pius X have been liberals(!).  Like Trumpists, they believe it is possible to halt the movement of culture and go back to the way things were in the 1950s when outward conformity was all the rage.  Even Fonzie, after all, was really a nice guy instead of a dangerous biker.  Although there is some theological minutiae here, I recommend this book for anyone who has even the slightest interest in the history of Vietnam, the Roman Catholic Church, or the mindset of those who reject the modern world.


Teaching Tradition

There’s a dilemma.  Many thinking religious conservatives end up arguing against “secular” education and yet wish to make themselves out as rational, and reasonable.  The truth is that underlying their position is the belief that the truth was revealed long ago and nothing has changed since then.  They want educated individuals to agree with this so quite often they establish their own institutions to turn out “experts” who haven’t been challenged in their positions.  This became clear to me yet again when reading Faith of Our Fathers by Stuart Chessman.  Subtitled A Brief History of Catholic Traditionalism in the United States from Triumph to Traditionis Custodes, I was expecting a history.  Instead it is more of a screed, or jeremiad, arguing that the Catholic Church is trying to destroy traditionalism.  What I was looking for, I guess, was a “secular” history.

I’m interested in traditionalism.  I taught, after all, for well over a decade at Nashotah House.  What I learned there I also sensed in this book.  There’s a certain naiveté associated with such theological thinking.  (Political conservatism is much more insidious.)  Small groups tend to think the larger organization has it in for them.  In reality, the larger church (in both these cases) has much more pragmatic things on its collective mind.  The narrow focus of traditionalists, however, interprets everything in the light of—in this case—rejecting the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.  Having the mass in Latin is more important (as is clear here) than coming up with an effective way of dealing with Covid-19.  Traditionalists are proud that they met more frequently during the height of the epidemic.

This kind of thinking is important to understand.  For Roman Catholicism, as a hierarchical organization, the projection of unity is very important.  Anyone involved in the upper levels of any administration knows that money—even for churches, especially for churches—is a major concern.  Reputation influences cash flow, so reputation has to be guarded at all costs.  No organization can appear to be caught up in medievalism in a capitalistic twenty-first century.  I had hoped this little book would contain an actual history of the movement, looking at socio-economic, political, and religious causes and their ramifications.  In other words, why people do things.  Believe me, I understand the draw of traditionalism.  Although it was in English my first Episcopal high mass threw me into a multi-year odyssey to a place (Nashotah House) where I learned what was really going on.  It’s not all about smells and bells.  Not by a long shot. 


Ecclesiastical Splinters

Religion is a massive, sprawling thing without a fixed definition.  Historians of religion have specializations.  Mine has been ancient religions of the Levant, but we’ve all seen how far that got me.  After taking a few years to recover, my research has shifted toward religions of the modern period.  There are plenty of them and many of them are under-studied.  That latter point makes things a bit easier.  Believe it or not, ancient religions is a pretty crowded field.  After I’d begun to write on Asherah, for example, I learned at least two other scholars were doing the same.  Not that there aren’t challenges with modern religions, particularly if they’re still practiced.  Take Roman Catholicism, for example.  I’ve never been a member of the Catholic Church.  There are Anglicans who would claim part of that title, but it has its own distinctions.

Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination by a long stretch.  It makes claims at being the oldest as well, but that’s a little more difficult to verify from an historian’s point of view.  In any case, Catholicism also likes to show a unified front to the world.  This is a little tricky because any time you get more than a billion people together you’re going to have differences.  Being a hierarchical organization, there is someone at the top to make official pronouncements, but in fact, those below will believe what they believe.  Many Catholics, for instance, use birth control.  I’ve been researching a sect within Catholicism and am finding it difficult to find resources.  It seems the Catholic Church (a billion is power) prefers not to have books out there on how divided it is.

Most Christian denominations are quite divided.  That’s why there are so many sects in the world.  If one is powerful enough to prevent those who dissent from making a big deal of it, good luck in finding useful resources about it!  The sect I’ve been exploring has, as far as I can determine, one footnote hidden away in a university press book devoted to it.  Other sources are, apparently, carefully kept quiet.  Yes, there are power struggles within the Vatican.  There’s a lot at stake here.  On Easter everyone in Christianity (except the Orthodox) will appear united for a day.  Well, not those sects that don’t celebrate holidays.  I don’t know how anyone can not find all of this fascinating.  There’s power involved in religion.  It may not vie with mammon, but it deals in it as well.  And we’ve all got so much to learn.

Photo by Callum Parker on Unsplash

Setting the Mood

I can’t recall how I learned about Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, but it was one of those books I knew I wanted to read.  One thing I do recall is that I didn’t know it had anything to do with religion until I started it.  It became quite clear that the story—which is difficult to classify—revolves around religion and a kind of gentle horror of things not being what they seem.  Set on a lonely stretch of English coastland where strange things happen, a family takes their mute son to a shrine to have him healed.  The younger brother, not mute, narrates the events.  There are many creepy suggestions of what may be happening, but a full explanation is never given.  That’s kind of like religion itself.

While I don’t normally read the discussion points or classroom/book group discussion material after most modern novels, I found Hurley’s included essay on “Nature, Faith, and Horror” to be of interest.  Several of us, it seems, find the combination of religion, or faith, ties in well with fear.  That was a large part of what I was trying to get at in Holy Horror.  Hurley goes in a different direction with it.  A family under the overbearing religion of the matriarch does her bidding in the hopes of either keeping peace or participating in the healing her son.  We learn from the opening pages that her son Hanny develops into a minister, and therefore has some degree of normalcy.  Hurley is a master of revealing important factors only gradually.  It keeps the tension rising as the story goes along.  There’s no bloodbath, but there is unsettling mystery.

The story is probably best characterized as gothic.  That’s rare these days, and it is the sub-genre of horror that most attracts me.  The mood it casts is kind of a spell and it’s difficult to break.  The Smith family insists on the sacredness of place and on strict religion of the Catholic species.  Evangelicalism could easily lead to horror, and not infrequently it does.  The Catholic variety, however, feels older.  More arcane.  There are things only a priest knows.  And that knowledge can be a challenge to both the knower and the seeker.  The Loney will leave the reader with questions ticking away about what really happened.  These are things we’ll never know.  Those of us who’ve ever entertained religious vocations understand this feeling well.  It stands behind certain kinds of horror and in front of religion, tying them together.


White Rabbit

There are books that make you feel as if everything you know is uncertain.  D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic is such a book.  Its subtitle, UFOs, Religion, Technology, only pauses at the brink of the rabbit hole down which this study will take you.  Over the years I admit to having been jealous of colleagues who’ve been able to make an academic career stick.  The credentials of a university post open doors for you, even if you’re a professor of religion.  Pasulka has opened some doors here that I suspect many would prefer to have kept closed.  This is a compelling book, threading together many themes tied to religious studies.  There are things we might see, if only we’ll open our eyes.

Although immediately and automatically subjected to the ridicule response, UFOs are a fascinating subject.  This book isn’t about UFO religions—of which there are many—but rather it connects this phenomenon to the study of religion itself.  In Pasulka’s related field of Catholic studies, there are those anomalous accounts of saints who did the impossible.  Like UFOs, they are subjected to the ridicule response, making serious discussion of them difficult.  Might the two be related?  As you feel yourself spinning deeper and deeper down that hole, technology comes into the picture and complicates it even further.  Pasulka was a consultant on The Conjuring.  I’ve written about the movie myself, but what I hadn’t realized is how media connects with perceptions of reality.  Yes, it has a religious freight too.

Every once in a while I reflect that my decision—if it was a decision; sometimes I feel certain my field chose me—to study religion might not have been misplaced.  Perhaps all of this does tie together in some way.  American Cosmic is a mind-expanding book that assures me all those years and dollars learning about religion weren’t wasted after all.  I had a discussion recently with another doctoral holder who’s been relegated to the role of editor.  We both lamented that our training was in some sense being wasted on a job that hardly requires this level of training.  Still, if it weren’t for my day job I probably wouldn’t have known about this book, and that is perhaps a synchronicity as well.  Life is a puzzle with many thousands—millions—of pieces.  Some books are like finding a match, but others are like informing you that you’ve got the wrong box top in hand as you try to construct the puzzle with the pieces you have.  If you read this book be prepared to come close to finding the white rabbit.


Amendments

Funny thing about freedom of speech.  It doesn’t really exist in a capitalist system.  Words, I suspect the powers that be know, are extremely potent.  Any system that brooks no rivals will insist on silencing dissidents.  And not just on a national scale.  Several years ago I was interviewed by a Catholic magazine for an editorial position.  I was between jobs and this looked like a good fit; in fact, the woman who arranged the interview told me that if this position didn’t work out they’d likely be able to find a different one for someone with my particular skill set.  When the power that was interviewed me, however, he noted that I had a blog.  “If we hire you, you’ll need to take it down,” he said.  It would confuse readers who might think I was speaking for the Catholic Church.  My candidacy did not proceed.

In a job I would eventually get, in academic publishing, a similar concern was expressed.  Although I hold an earned doctorate from a world-class research university, my opinions might be mistaken for those of some true authority.  Problematic.  This issue keeps coming up.  I write fiction and publish it under a pseudonym.  Sometimes I think about coming out of my literary closet, but the issues pour in hard and fast when the door’s opened.  What would those who read my nonfiction (both of them!) think?  Would I discredit myself because I have too much imagination?  What would an academic employer say?  If I ever went back on the ordination track, would a congregation of any sort understand a clergy person who thinks such things?  I get enough flak from writing about horror films.

The fact is, freedom of expression is very, very limited.  Capitalism measures all things by the bottom line and anything that might cause that trend to waver is forbidden.  Lack of team spirit.  If you want to publish, don’t work in publishing.  It’s like saying (if I might be so bold) that you shouldn’t teach if you earn a doctorate, because you might actually contribute to what we hopefully call knowledge.  This dilemma has become an entrenched part of my psyche.  I grew up innocently writing fiction.  I completed my first stories about the age of 12 or 13.  I was eventually groomed for the ministry and so the fiction had to be set aside as one of those “childish things.”  Was it?  Perhaps.  More likely though, it was simply a lesson that I would find repeated throughout my adult life.  Give lip service to freedom of speech, but don’t ever use it.


Not for Men

Does anyone else think that feeding fishmeal to herbivores so that they, in turn can be eaten, is weird?  Brian Fagan in his Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization describes the long history of eating seafood.  In evolutionary terms it makes sense, but so does veganism.  One thing that becomes clear from this study, however, is that human civilization simply could not have developed the way that it did without fishing.  Food for those performing massive public works came from the abundance of the ocean.  Theology played its part too.  Roman Catholicism established a habit that still exists of eating fish on Friday.  In Catholic areas of this country Friday fish fries, and the occasional fish boil, are cultural icons.  As Fagan points out, part of the reasoning behind this was the belief that God gave humans fish to exploit.

We find, interestingly enough, that religious thinking often stands behind tragic results.  Although I’m a vegan, I find it distressing that the oceans—so vast in extent—have been depleted by human activity.  The main problem, which we’re slow to learn, is that technology has made fishing too efficient.  This isn’t some kid with a rod and reel on the bank of a muddy river, but rather the industrial-scale trawling that begins by locating fish schools with sonar.  Not only that, but the land habitat to which we bring the fish is also being depleted.  I’m probably not the only one who gets the feeling that Fagan’s writing about more than just fish.  Where there is abundance, we take it as an invitation to exploit.  Tech makes it so easy!

In the early history of humankind, seafood was a necessity.  As Fagan shows, it was sometimes reserved for hard times.  Now we feed fishmeal to domesticated animals not because it’s what they naturally eat, but because—you guessed it—it’s cheap.  I’m still not allowed to give blood because of the Mad Cow Disease scare that rocked Britain when I lived there.  In part it was caused by feeding herbivores feed that consisted of meal made from other herbivores.  I no longer eat fish.  With the world population what it is, and global warming stressing agriculture, it seems we need to be thinking about what’s for dinner.  Quite apart from the fact that fish are, despite proclamations of ecclesiastical bodies, animals just like any others, we’ve managed to scour the ocean so thoroughly that recovery may be impossible in some locations.  The reason often given is that God gave us the oceans to use.  And that kind of thinking always leads to disaster. 


November Novina

One of my New Testament professors was fond of saying early Christianity was exclusive so that people would want to join.  “If everybody could be a Christian,” he suggested, “why would anyone want to be?”  There is a snob appeal to such a country-club approach to religiosity (although I believe it to be false) that has somehow come to be attached to All Saints Day.  As the holiday that spawned Halloween (or so some say), All Saints seems to hold us the exclusive members of a sect that began with radical equality.  The slight was addressed in All Souls Day (tomorrow), when the rest of us might have a chance of being remembered.

There was a death in my extended family yesterday, of someone not much older than me.  I won’t reveal the personal details here, but I do ponder the coincidence of his passing so close to All Saints.  When we’re gone, we hope, people will remember our good, opposite to what Shakespeare suggested might be the case with Julius Caesar.  There are those who touch our lives for good, be it loudly or softly, and we tend to think of that good as who they were.  But sainthood?  Isn’t that a bar too high for anyone to achieve?  And if we think we’ve made it, even that very thought is enough to disqualify us.  Some sects of Christianity treat any member as a saint, but that leaves little to which to aspire.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

For the rest of the world this marks the beginning of November—that month when cold settles in along with longer nights, but no reduced working hours.  We are approaching the holiday season, for we need some help to make it through times when loss can feel so close at hand.  The veil separating worlds—something science has tried hard to dismiss—was believed to be more permeable at this time of year.  All Saints was a bright day of upbeat music and glory, while All Souls followed in black and more somber tones.  That’s kind of like November.  I grew up, as did my departed kin, without the awareness of these holidays of transition.  Protestants sometimes miss the complexity traditional Catholicism had carefully grown.  At Nashotah House this was a day of obligation (although they all were, really), and we’d be invited to add names to be recited in mass.  I have a name or two to add this year, and I like to think anyone should be free to join.


Virgin-Haunted World

One of the most frequent accusations of “idolatry” I heard as a child was leveled at Roman Catholic devotion to the virgin Mary.  Lessons learned during childhood are difficult to displace, especially when they concern your eternal destination.  I overcame this particular objection, a bit, during my sojourn among the Episcopalians, but I have to confess I never felt right praying to Mary.  In my Protestant-steeped mind, there were two classes of entities involved: gods (of which, properly, there was only one) and human beings.  Only the former received prayers.  The rest of us simply had to contend with non-supernatural powers and do the best we could.  Still, I met many believers devoted to Mary, and honestly, some accounts of Marian apparitions are pretty impressive.

A local source for inexpensive advertising in our area is essentially a weekly set of want ads.  For a small fee you can advertise just about anything you want to buy or have to sell.  Spiritual or physical.  A few weeks ago, someone ran a magnanimous piece on a prayer to the virgin never known to fail.  The words of the prayer were printed, along with the instructions, for nothing is quite as simple as “ask and you shall receive.”  The prayer must be recited thrice, and thanksgiving publicly proclaimed.  A number of questions occurred to me, regarding not only this, but all prayers for divine action.  One is the rather simple query of how you can know if a prayer has never failed.  I suspect this is known by faith alone.

There are any number of things most of us would like to change about our lives, and the larger issue of prayer is the daisy-chaining of causality.  One change causes another, causes another, and often that for which we pray will impact another person in a negative way.  This is the classic “contradictory prayer” conundrum—one person prays for sunny skies while another prays for rain.  Neither is evil, both have their reasons, perhaps equally important.  (The weekday is a workday for many, and that’s non-negotiable in a capitalist society, so I suspect prayers for sunny skies tend to be weekend prayers, but still…)  The prayer never known to fail is either a rock or a hard place.  It’s that certitude that does it.  I don’t begrudge anyone a prayer that works.  Faith alone can test the results.  And although we could use a little less rain around here, we could all benefit from a little more faith, I suspect.  And for that there’s no fee.


What’s the Story?

Belief is truly an amazing phenomenon. Even as we see it play out daily in the news, rational people ask themselves how people can accept something that all the evidence decries; just take a look at Fox news. In any case, those who study demons come up against the name of Fr. Gabriele Amorth with some frequency. Amorth was a true believer. Earlier this year I read one of his books and I wondered if he might reveal more in An Exorcist Tells His Story. Forgive me for being curious, but I really am interested in his story—how did this man become the passionate spokesperson for exorcism being reestablished in every Catholic diocese? What were the personal experiences that led him to this? Who was he?

Some people can’t write about themselves. Some, and I suspect clergy often fall into this trap, can’t write without the material becoming a sermon. This book is such an extended homily. Along the way Amorth does discuss a few cases of demonic possession and how it is to be confronted, but mostly he discusses the theology of his view of Catholicism and how that is essential to understanding demons. What is most odd about this is the inconsistency of a true believer in Catholicism admitting that Protestants too can drive out demons right after declaring the Roman Ritual is the only way for Catholics to do so. And only bishops, or those priests appointed by them, are permitted as exorcists. Is this a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Protestants, according to the theology he espouses, shouldn’t be able to do this. If they can, why doesn’t it make him question his faith?

Known for his thousands of exorcisms, Amorth continues to have a healthy following. Anyone reading this book for a consistent outlook will be left wondering. How can Catholic exorcism work only if it follows the rules, and Protestant exorcism work when it is done by those who believe falsely? The same applies to his assertions that those who are possessed are not morally at fault, for it is the demon that makes them do evil things. At the same time those who lead “immoral” lives—according to Catholic standards—are more likely to become possessed. A few pages earlier we’d been told about saints who’d been possessed. I don’t mean to suggest anything about Amorth’s faith commitments—it’s celestially clear that he was a true believer. His commitment to help those who were possessed was legendary. Perhaps it’s just that demons are agents of chaos, and in such circumstances even theology can become a victim. I’m still wondering about his story, though.


Biblical Popes

It was the end of the world. The year was 1979, if I recall. One of those occasional manias that sweep the nation weighed heavily upon my high school. My English teacher—for her class was at the very hour of the appointed end—sensibly scrapped her lesson plan for the day and had us each write an essay. Would the world end or not, during this very class period? We then shared what we wrote. I recall one answer—not my own—quite clearly. “The Bible says when the reign of Pope is short after the long reign of the previous Pope, the world will end.” (This was just after the death of Pope John Paul I.) A moment’s thought revealed that there are no Popes in the Bible. How could anybody think there were?

Of course, we were at the end of a decade whose bestselling book was Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth. It was part of what analysts call John Todd Phase of the world’s end scenarios. Or was it the Pat Robertson Phase? In any case, all kinds of obscure signs floated in the air. But Popes in the Bible? Had any of my classmates even read the Good Book? This may have been the only occasion when it was beneficial to have been raised a fundamentalist. I’d already read the Bible many times through and it said nothing about Popes. Not even the Catholic translations.

The iconic role of Holy Writ in secular society is greater than many people suppose. “The Bible says” is practically gospel because few people will check it out. I knew from my conversations with clergy, even as a teen, that few ministers had actually read their own foundation document the whole way through. That leaves them vulnerable to the “cloud of unknowing” whether something is biblical or not. The only way to find out is to sit down with the tome and start reading. Although today such sites as BibleGateway make reading the Good Book online remarkably easy, it’s still a commitment of many hours immersed in an arcane world and mind-numbing lists of who begat whom once upon a time. Examined closely, the Bible is an odd book as far as Holy Writ goes. The same applies to the scriptures of many world religions. Somewhere along the line someone decides that this book, or collection of palm leaves, or set of scrolls, has divine origins. And since world scripture is vast, there’s got to be something about Popes in there somewhere, for when the next end of the world scare comes along.


Pittsburgh Demons

Far be it from me to question someone else’s demons, but every story has at least two sides. After reading Bob Cranmer and Erica Manfred’s The Demon of Brownsville Road: A Pittsburgh Family’s Battle wit Evil in Their Home, I have to wonder about the other side. I have no doubts that strange things happen behind closed doors. Indeed, the aspect of space, or location, has far more entanglements than our science allows. I don’t question the haunting described in the pages of this book—Bob Cranmer was once a prominent political figure in Pittsburgh and has the credibility that comes with elected office (or at least used to). What is open to question is the interpretation.

The Catholic tradition, which is involved here, does accept that a demon can infest a house. The way this account is laid out, however, is as a personal battle between Cranmer and the demon. The story is not unlike Amityville—family moves into house, discovers it’s haunted, and has to decide what to do about it. They call in a priest. From there the stories diverge. Cranmer’s family started experiencing various misfortunes. These were attributed to the demon. The story is strongly patriarchal; Bob Cranmer is a take-charge kind of guy and he alone can take on this fallen angel in the final instance. There are priests involved—including a prominent monsignor in Pittsburgh—but also clergy from other faith traditions and a paranormal investigation group from Penn State. Did the events happen as described? I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

A few things seem a little off here, though. A Catholic official stating that sex between married couples drives off demons? The discovery that the sins in this house stem from it being an illegal abortion clinic? That Native Americans murdered a family now buried on the property? The book doesn’t give documentation because it’s not that kind of book. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the Cranmer family finally found relief from the presence that was haunting their home. Even watching a movie like The Amityville Horror makes people uncomfortable because the idea is so scary—home is a sanctuary and when it’s invaded by an invisible (in this case sometimes visible) enemy it becomes a nightmare. The reader is left with the impression that it came down to a battle of wills and that of a former Republican politician was stronger than that of one of Satan’s minions. Some things, particularly in the climate these days, are difficult to believe.


Exorcising Theology

Among those curious about exorcism, the name Fr. Gabriele Amorth requires no introduction. As “the Vatican’s chief exorcist” (a claim the book makes), Fr. Amorth was known for conducting many deliverances and for teaching a new generation of exorcists. Looking for an entryway into his perspective, I read An Exorcist Explains the Demonic: The Antics of Satan and His Army of Fallen Angels. That a priest in Rome should be conservative was no surprise. What was truly astounding about this account was how unquestioningly the exorcist accepted nearly everything to do with Roman Catholicism. His reading of the Bible is quite literal. His understanding of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God offers no nuance. Demons are fallen angels and, somewhat surprisingly, he uses “Devil” and “demon” interchangeably. For a hierarchy so thoroughly parsed, this was a bit unexpected. Encountering these explanations, much of what I’d recently read in Matt Baglio’s The Rite made sense. Baglio’s protagonist studied in Rome when Fr. Amorth was still active.

Much of the book felt like a lecture from the 1950s. Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll can all lead to demonic possession. And it turns out to be quite pervasive. Many people, saints and sinners alike, are possessed and don’t even know it. This is truly, according to the priest, a “world with devils filled.” The book begins with a Catholic, if literal, interpretation of Jesus’ role in the salvation of humankind (although the masculine pronoun is preferred throughout). Not only that, there’s no question that women can or should be exorcists. This is something that priests alone can handle. And he even goes far as to point to Eve (who literally existed, one gets the impression) as an example of how women are more easily tempted than men. Reading this brief tractate was like stepping back into a world that even antedates that of the Republican Party. Not decrying science, however, Fr. Amorth suggests medical explanations can account for some of what sufferers deem as possession. Those who think they are in trouble with demons should first go to a psychiatrist. If the problem can’t be solved, it’s time to call in the men in black.

Another area of concern is his outlook on other religions. African and East and South Asian belief systems are coded as possibly satanic. This universe is a strictly Catholic one. Having noted that, a strong undercurrent of love pervades the book. It’s clear that Fr. Amorth was a priest motivated by care for others. His theology may have been hopelessly medieval, but his heart was in the right place. And, if the accounts are to be believed, he was quite good at expelling literal demons. Some of the metaphorical ones, however, seem to have remained firmly in place.