Tuesday, July 8

A few weeks ago, after I bitch-slapped The Da Vinci Code in the pages of OSV, I got a couple of letters scolding me and reminding me that it's "only a novel" and not get so nerved up about it. Which I wouldn't, being a let-art-be-art kind of chick, except for the fact that many, many of the Amazon reader reviews indicated to me that there's a sizeable number of folks who are taking Brown's tendentious reworking of esoteric theories as Real History.

Well, I got my answer to those critics today, in the form of a little piece of Publishers' Weekly Religion emailing:

In the last issue of BookLine, we wrote about how books on gnosticism were seeing increased interest, in part because the subject is dealt with in Dan Brown's red-hot novel "The DaVinci Code" (Doubleday). Now the book seems also to have ignited sales for new and old titles on Mary Magdalene. That includes nonfiction books actually mentioned in "DaVinci Code," among them "The Woman with the Alabaster Jar" (1993) and "The Goddess in the Gospels" (1998), both by Margaret Starbird and published by Inner Traditions/Bear & Co.

Rob Meadows, v-p of sales and marketing at Inner Traditions, couldn't be more delighted. "I don't really know how many page-turner thrillers--fiction--generate that much interest in the story behind it all," he said. He noted that "Alabaster Jar" typically sold up to 3,000 copies a year but has sold 9,100 copies since Brown’s book came out. "Goddess in the Gospels" has gone from 70 copies a month to almost 1,700 a month, and Starbird's nonfiction "Magdalene's Lost Legacy," which Inner Traditions/Bear released May 5, sold out its 5,000-copy first printing and has gone back to press for a second. The house's "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene" (2002), edited by Jean-Yves Leloup and translated by Joseph Rowe, went from sales of 300 a month to about 1,700 a month.

Meadows said he thinks the real story will be people taking seriously the possibility that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a relationship and a family: "It's a shattering idea that Jesus was no celibate, that Mary Magdalene was no whore." Likewise, he thinks it could prove revolutionary for Christianity to consider that there is a "sacred feminine" aspect that has been suppressed and labeled a heresy. "It's not just that, hey, we have a cool idea that's going to upset some people," Meadows said. "The idea is arriving."

Other publishers also are getting a lift from "DaVinci Code." John Fagan, marketing director for Penguin Books, said he's heard reports of increasing interest in the fictional "Mary, Called Magdalene"(Viking cloth, 2002; Penguin paper, May 2003) by Margaret George. At Harper San Francisco, sales director Jeff Hobbs reported that sales of the 1991 paperback "The Moon Under Her Feet" by Clysta Kinstler increased more than 300% since March. Hobbs said HSF is seeing "significant interest and renewed sales levels" for "Nag Hammadi Library" (paperback, 1990), edited by James M. Robinson. Hobbs said HSF will explore ways to connect "Nag Hammadi," which contains "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," with "DaVinci Code" readers.

In promoting "The DaVinci Code," Barnes & Noble assembled a table of books on related subjects in April and will do so again in August, said spokeswoman Carolyn Brown. "People love this book, and they're so excited by the different topics discussed in it that they're just hungry for more information."

You may have noticed that I rarely post entries that are complete, airtight arguments from beginning to end. That's mostly because I don't have time to think blogthings through from beginning to end, especially when other writings call (hey - I wrote an 1100 word book review and a 700-word column today! Give me a break!), but also because I know I can always depend on you folks to help me follow trains of thought, discard others, consider implications and really figure out what I'm really trying to say.

In musing here about Catholics Without Qualifiers, I think I'm looking at three points.

The first is personal. As for me and my house, I'm saying, we're out of the label business. I won't be pinned down for the reasons I articulated below. I'm a Catholic, I'm deeply comfortable with saying that, and I feel no need to distinguish myself from other Catholics.

Secondly, I'm trying to understand why this labeling happened. And oh, by the way, I mispoke a couple of days ago when I said that used to be the only "kinds" of Catholics were lapsed and ethnic. Actually, that's not correct. There were "bad" Catholics, many cheerily self-acknowledged. How could I forget Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World...

Third, I'm trying to find a way beyond it. Not, please note, for the sake of pretending that all is well or false unity, but simply because it's vital that we do. It's not that the other tasks - the clarification and presentation of truth and the mutual, fraternal correction don't need to happen. Jesus told us that they must. The content of faith is irreplacable. I just spent some time today dissecting a book that suggests the opposite, and it was a fairly simple and obvious procedure.

But along with voices that are clearly teaching, firmly correcting and engagingly preaching we need voices that call us to simply heed the Good News and act on it as Jesus tells us to, voices that can cut through our politicized discourse, despite our own pride and our own resistance. Voices that are dedicated to just that task. And that's what I don't see in Western Catholicism at this moment. All the periodicals fall along ideological fault lines, and all the books that get any kind of wider PR press and are the subject of broad discussion among Catholics do the same. Spiritual movements by nature appeal to particular types, gathering the like-minded, but is there any spiritual movement today in the American Church that is not viewed, at some level, in political terms? Apologetics movements, perpetual adoration, peace and justice, respect life, Opus Dei...I ask you - is there any lay movement in the US church that isn't the object of suspicion by at least half of the engaged Catholic population? Is there even one Catholic college or university that's respected academcially and spiritually by all "sides" in this country? (Maybe CUA? I don't know) And what about people? Is there an American Catholic leader, thinker or activist who is respected and inspires by most of us? Or do they all, once again, fall along these divides, either by intention or, quite frequently (as is the case with the Pope, I'd argue) because of the stubbornness of listeners who won't hear what he has to say on its own terms, but only through ideologically-framed earpieces.

Do you see what I'm saying? Does it make sense? Do you see the need?

Fr. Jim of Dappled Things has great thoughts

If a person professes the Faith with us in the official Creeds of the Church, receives the Sacraments in communion with the Church, and takes part in the Liturgy of the Church, we are supposed to assume his orthodoxy and accept him as a Catholic without qualifiers. He may not be a perfect saint, and maybe he can't explain the difference between the Virginal Conception and the Immaculate Conception, but we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The problem, of course, is that many people have been severely burnt many times by things that went masquerading as Catholic, when they were in fact nothing of the sort. And such people (and this goes for "liberals" as much as for "conservatives") will band together, circle the wagons, and try to keep from being hurt again. To do this, they will sometimes make pre-emptive strikes on people and groups they perceive as threats. And labels are the best way for them to distinguish who's who on the battlefield. It may not be excusable, but is at least understandable.

How to overcome this?


Of course there are boundaries, and it is the responsibility of the teaching Church to articulate and clarify them. It is the responsibility of the teaching Church to insure that those who teach in its name are teaching the truth - from bishops to priests to catechists in parishes.

But that's really not the concern that I'm cogitating on here. Let's see if I can clarify.

Like many of you, this has been a concern to me for a long time. Of late, it's interested me more for a couple of reasons. First, because of the more or less constant pressure on me, as a sort-of public Catholic to identify myself as a certain "type" of Catholic, and I just have no interest - none at all - in doing that. Why? Because in doing so, I am implicitly separating myself from other Catholics who may not share my label of choice. Others get into that, and even relish it. They like being a remnant, they like feeling as if they are on leading edge, that they are more enlightened than other Catholics, that they are somehow more faithful than others, but I don't, because it's just not true. People who insist on labeling themselves "orthodox" or "conservative" may take comfort in the fact that they are distinguishing themselves from Bishop Gumbleton. People who claim the mantle of "progressive" may be delighted that in doing so no one will confuse them with Cardinal Ratzinger. I don't want to let that divisive edge into my sense of spiritual identity. I don't want to paper over real problems in regard to Catholic identity, and, as I said, clarification and forceful expression of that identity is an important part of the Church's mission, but at the same time, I decline to put a label on myself because those labels are, in the real world, expressive of certain earthly loyalties, and those are not where my ultimate loyalties lie.

Secondly, this has really bugged me in the weeks since I've read Paul Elie's book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, an examination of the lives and works of Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Flannery O'Connor, and, by extension, the intellectual and spiritual lives of Catholics in the 20th century. I was struck, in the end, how non-political the religious discourse engaged in by these figures was. These were all wildly different people, with different spiritualities and emphases in their religious lives, but there was absolutely no sense that any of them were anything but simply "Catholic." Sure, we all know that Day was controversial, and bore many labels during her time, as did the Worker movement, but when you study the correspondence and article writing that went on, as these figures and others pondered the questions of the day, the fundamental sense of unity is striking. The issues they discussed were not issues of church polity, but of what it means to bring Christ into the world via the Church and via their own gifts. It was almost shocking to compare it to what passes for discourse in Catholic periodicals and literature today. Sure, there are writers who address spiritual questions - many, in fact, but when you think about the primary direction of intellectual energy among Catholic writers and, for lack of a better word, activists today, it is all about clarifying who's really Catholic from who's not. It is absolutely and totally depressing.

So why did this happen? We've been picking this apart, but I am really coming to think that the introduction of seemingly endless options into liturgical life plays a part, in that complex dynamic of lex orandi, lex credendi (or whatever..I'm in a rush, can't look up the right spelling, so correct me.) I also think that in the burst of scholarship and study and more general access to that scholarship in the past forty years, we have been confronted with the reality of doctrinal and pastoral development in the history of the Church, and I think that those who decry "dissent from the Magisterium" really need to take this seriously. You have to understand that while many of those who hold more "progressive" views may do so out of arrogance or a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of Christian faith, some others are actually holding to their views in the context of their understanding of how Church teaching has developed over the centuries. Slavery, once tolerated among Christians (read Philemon), was centuries later condemned as a sin. The Church's understanding and communication of the proper ends of marriage has developed. The Church's sense of the most beneficial ordering of civic life and government has developed. The Church's sense of exactly what it means to say that "outside the Church there is no salvation" has definitely developed over time.

Educated people know these things, even if their education is sometimes incomplete. Even barely catechized folks who lived through the changes of Vatican II saw..well...change. Tremendous change, as things that were of prime importance in 1958 suddenly were ignored in 1968. (For a good look at this from a fictional viewpoint, see David Lodge's Souls and Bodies which was originally titled, in its British release, How Far Can You Go?, a title that refers, not only to the sexual obsessions of its main characters, but to the slow dismantling of Church teaching...how far can you go before the whole thing collapses?)

So given this reality, many people see the Church, no longer as an eternally stable depository of truth that is the same from century to century, but as a human institution that tries to embody and express the will of God in each age, for each age, and what that means changes. I'm not saying they're right. I'm saying that's the way a lot of people think, and their "hopes" for changes in Church structure or teaching are grounded in their understanding of past development and shifts.

But anyway....My point is always, first to understand. That's my interest and fascination..in understanding why things happen, why people think as they do. Some don't like that because it's not as judgmental as they like, but too bad. I can be as judgmental as the next Church Lady, but I'm just as interested in understanding.

Secondly, I don't want the Church to shy away from articulating what it means to follow Christ, what it means to be Catholic. It's there in the Catechism for all to see, and like the rest of you, I want that more, not less, strongly disseminated.

But I also want to work towards focusing more on the Gospel and on what Jesus is calling us to. Oh, it's complicated, and not totally separate from the other issues (how do we know what Jesus wants?) but for me, I have just about had it with the name-calling and the judgment in Catholic public discourse and intellectual life. I want people to start talking about Jesus again. I want us to go to Mass, not to judge the celebrants or the ministers, but to focus on Christ. I want us to start celebrating Mass and leading the music in Mass, not to make ideological points, but to do nothing but point people to Jesus. I want us to sit in the pews - all of us - and see each other with the eyes of Christ.

That doesn't mean we don't hold each other accountable. At all. It doesn't mean anything goes. It means that the spirit of humility and love is at the center of everything we do and everything we say, not fear, not judgment, not labels.

So the question is...you go to Mass, and your favorite bete-noir is sitting next to you. It's Anna Quindlen. It's Madonna. It's Mother Angelica. It's Andrew Sullivan. It's Jennifer Granholm. (gulp) It's Pat Buchanan. Cardinal Ratzinger is celebrating Mass, assisted by Cardinal Mahony.

Do you share the Sign of Peace?

Do you mean it?

And...what does it mean?

Various bloggers chime in on the Qualified Catholics question and related matters:


Some might say, "Heretics are automatically excommunicated, and the number of heretics in my 'so-called' Catholic parish is legion." But heresy doesn't seem to be such a casual matter -- again, perhaps, by necessity. Sure, you aren't a Monothelite, but can you be sure about all the knights in your local council? Scratch a member of the ladies' sodality, and who's to say you won't find someone who thinks in order for your sins to be forgiven you have to be certain they're forgiven?

Sed Contra

I think the problem at the root of this is self-righteousness and that the cure is a good dose of humility. Can someone who claims the label of "traditionalist" or "conservative" or "progressive" know for absolute, blue-sky certain that God really doesn't care about the things we do as His body to fight injustice based on race or class or origin or that He doesn't really care about personal holiness as much? Yes, we can quibble about how things are done, but is it such an impossible thing to believe that the "other side" (however we define that) might have some truth behind their points? And would the charity and humility it would take to admit that really cost us so much?


Contrast this with the groups that have worked reform in the history of the Church, let me take St. Francis for an example. Did Francis' begin by taking on a political slogan? No, he began by praying before a crucifix. He began with a look into the Gospels and a re-encounter with Christ. Christ was his focus and through the eyes of Christ he saw the church that Christ founded falling into ruin and felt the command to rebuild it--begining with the crumbling church that he was praying in. Here is true reform--not focused on the structures of the Church but rather on Christ and following Him. In this view of reform the Church is seen transfigured, her humanity veiled, the battle won.


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