Orbiting Dicta

Category Archives: Religion

The View from Here: Voyager’s [O]mission

This year, in August and September, the 40th anniversary of the launches of the two Voyager spacecraft are being rightly celebrated.

Each of the probes carried on board a remarkable document — a record of civilized life on Earth devised as a greeting card to any life forms in the universe intelligent enough to intercept and decipher these messages.  A product of the creative collaboration of astronomer Carl Sagan, his wife Linda, and their associates, each of the Voyager messages included sounds and music representative of human cultures on the planet as well as pictures inscribed on a long‑playing phonograph record. But the Sagan team strove to make sure that all mention of God, the sacred or the religious dimension of human experience on Earth was deleted from the gold-plated record.

Secular music by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven was included, along with jazz and folk songs from around the globe.  But there were no liturgical chorales, masses or oratorios; no Gregorian chant, no Negro spirituals; no hymns or native religious canticles.  There was no religious art – Leonardo’s Last Supper, for instance, or Michelangelo’s paintings from the Sistine Chapel, or the windows of Chartres, arabesques from the walls of the Alhambra, or sculptures from Angkor Wat.  No Buddhist or Hindu temple appears, no cathedral, synagogue, or lamasery‑‑ only the Taj Mahal – technically a mosque, but “a monument not to religion,” it was noted, “but to love, and thus an appealing choice.” (A few gothic chapels slipped by‑‑ in a photograph of Oxford University — probably because they are unrecognizable as places of worship to anyone unfamiliar with the “City of Spires.”)

There were lengthy statements by politicians and other “world leaders”‑‑ the President of the United States, a two‑page list of US senators and congressmen “associated” with NASA, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and statements and even poems from fifteen UN delegates.  There were none however from the Dalai Lama, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, a rabbi, an imam, a Buddhist nun, or a yogi.

One other oblique reference did manage to slip by the screening process devised by the scientists, however.  It was a statement by an African from South Uganda, Elijah Mwima‑Mudeenya of Kampala, who said, “Greetings to all peoples of the universe.  God give you peace.”

In the end, what Sagan nearly accomplished was a gross misinterpretation of the real human situation on this planet, whose inhabitants are overwhelmingly members of a variety of religious traditions, some of which (preeminently Christianity and Islam) demonstrably gave rise to the very science Sagan and his colleagues espoused.

But despite claims, or should I say boasts, to the contrary, science is not uniformly value-free nor devoid of significant prejudice.  Sometimes disastrously so.  So I hope that any advanced civilization capable of playing phonograph records has some appreciation of irony. I wonder what our hopefully friendly extraterrestrials in some remote aeon in some imaginably distant realm of the universe will make of  Elijah Mwima‑Mudeenya’s blessing once they get the phonograph going.

Jesus in Bad Company

Many of the publicly righteous (notably Franklin Graham, but Rush Limbaugh should not be overlooked as he dislikes that) have increasingly rent their garments in public, at east vocally, over the composition of the guest list for the White House dinner being laid out for the pope when he visits next week.  The pope, so far as I know, hasn’t said anything, although some of the Vatican minions have shred a few robes in the press.  An activist nun?  A gay (Anglican) bishop?

Somehow, I doubt that this pope would mind much, and might in fact enjoy the company.  After all, he does tend to follow precedent – as do all those righteous indignators in their indignation.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all relate the same incident, and Jesus later had some choice remarks to make about his choice of table companions:

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples– for there were many who followed him.  When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:15-17)

This was no one-off. Jesus had a reputation for keeping bad company:

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. (Luke 15:1-5)

No, the pope will be just fine. In fact, he’ll probably enjoy the company immensely.  And no doubt be criticized for that, too.  Just like his Master.

The War to End War

Today the heads of state and representatives from the European nations who entered into the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen one hundred years ago on this date gathered in Liege and other sites of early conflict to mark the occasion with ceremonies, speeches, and tributes. World War I was alleged to be the war to end war.  Many expected the fighting to be over before Christmas.  It would drag on in the trenches, forests, and towns of Europe and, indeed, the world, for four long, terrible years.  Millions died as mechanized, industrial warfare transformed the scope and horrors of battle.  It was the end of the old order but, equally or even more tragically, the herald of the new.

A  century later, the world should be wiser, especially after a second World War which now seems more like a continuation of the first, and a Cold War that was its product, one that bankrupted nations morally and economically and brought the world to the edge of nuclear destruction.  But as we scan the horizons of conflict from Syria, Gaza, and Iraq to Ukraine, Libya, central Africa, and the fraught zones of East Asia, it may be questioned if we have learned anything at all.

And yet, for all that, people still yearn for peace and those who work for peace shall be called the children of God.

…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. [Isaiah 2:4]

Seven Days in April

It began with certain sadness in the wake of the heroic death of Anne Smedinghoff, the young State Department representative killed in Afghanistan on April 6th delivering books to school children.  She grew up not far from here and graduated from Fenwick, our Dominican high school in Oak Park.  Her funeral was scheduled for Wednesday, April 17th – the same day as that of Margaret Thatcher in England.  I was preparing to write about the telling contrast between these two women when the Boston Marathon erupted in terrible violence.  As the nation was gripped by horror and bewilderment, a fertilizer factory exploded massively in West, Texas.

As the week drew on, tornadoes, sink holes, freakish weather patterns, wildfires, local floods, bomb attacks in Iraq, Afghan woes, devastating earthquakes in Iran and China, and even North Korean machinations faded from our screens and minds as American eyes focused almost exclusively on the tragic events in Boston.  That focus shifted to the incomparable manhunt for the bombers, their capture, and now the hunt for explanations and the beginning of the political posturing as the blame game revs up in Congress.  It was like a movie.  Too like a movie.

Today, Sunday, the worn and sometimes ragged white ribbons that decorated almost every tree in River Forest, Anne Smedinghoff’s neighborhood, still flutter in the chill April air.  In England, attention has shifted from the Thatcher funeral to the London Marathon.  But the contrast between the two women remains fixed in my mind.

I did not know Anne Smedinghoff, nor did I ever meet Margaret Thatcher.  But I lived in England during her long and, from my perspective, largely disastrous tenure as prime minister.  I was there the night she was elected and in 1990 I was there the day she was dumped by her party in favor of John Major.  Smedinghoff’s brief life was devoted to promoting peace through diplomacy — a dangerous mission in an explosive part of the world. (She had previously served in Caracas, Venezuela, and volunteered for the mission in Afghanistan.)   Thatcher set out to remake England, and largely succeeded.  She broke the trade unions, bled the middle class, ended England’s long history as a major manufacturing nation, and spoiled the educational system.  So dire were the funding and administrative “reforms” she rammed through Parliament that in 1985 her alma mater, Oxford University, refused to grant her an honorary doctorate — a courtesy ordinarily extended to prime ministers who had studied there. It would not be wide of the mark to say that the English educational system is still a mess after all these years.

But Thatcher succeeded in executing a sharp right turn in English politics, converting even leaders of the Labour Party to the kind of fiscal and social entrepreneurship she favored.  Once Gordon Brown was out of the way, the subsequent Blair years were very much like the Thatcher-Major years.  And to David Cameron and the Tories, Thatcher achieved the status of a national heroine.  Their suspicions of the European Union, and refusal to enter the common currency, remains part of the Iron Lady’s legacy.

To be sure, Thatcher was a resolute and forceful politician.  She stood up to IRA terrorists, but also harmfully delayed the peace process in Northern Ireland.  Discarding diplomatic means, in 1982 she waged a successful and bloody if mercifully brief war against Argentina over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands, an English colony just off the coast of South America.  And in tether with Ronald Reagan, she maneuvered Mikhail Gorbachev toward a nuclear stand-down that contributed weightily to the fall of the Soviet Union.  Credit earned, without doubt.

After the fall, Thatcher was for a season the subject of a brilliant television sitcom called “Dun Rulin’” that detailed in high comedic fashion her imagined return to ordinary life in an English suburb. In real life, in 1992 Thatcher, who once sternly indicted the tobacco industry when she was prime minister, took on a million-dollar contract with Philip Morris to help hawk low-grade cigarettes to third world countries, resist taxing tobacco, and oppose anti-smoking legislation.  That might be overlooked, but it seems consistent with her Ayn Rand-like ethics.  Philip Morris expressed its satisfaction by celebrating her 70th birthday in Washington, D.C., with a million-dollar party.

Anne Smedinghoff died delivering books to impoverished school kids in Afghanistan.  She had a modest if well-attended funeral by comparison.  St. Luke’s lacked the pomp and circumstance and glorious music of the ten million-dollar funeral at St. Paul’s in London.  But she was commended by the Secretary of State, the President of the United States, the Governor of Illinois, and thousands of citizens who still believe that a better world will ultimately be achieved, not by might nor by power, much less money, but by the works of peace, by the Spirit of a loving God (Zechariah 4:6).


The election campaigns are over and the voting done.  We are back where we started, pretty much, about 6 billion dollars later.  Washington seems paralyzed by Party bickering.  At least the Israelis and Palestinians are not lobbing missiles at each other for the time being.  The long Black Friday and Cyber Monday (with antecedents and consequents) are pretty much behind us.  Most Americans have all but forgotten about Sandy and the worst storm damage since Hurricane Katrina and the worst ever to visit the east coast.  A strange quiet seems to have fallen over the earth (save for unrest in Egypt, Syria, and large parts of Africa).  Winter is slowly approaching and the beautiful season of Advent , once precious to Christians as a time of waiting and expectation, is half over. It now seems more like the last chance for the forces of capitalism and merchandising canniness to convince the general public to buy everything that can be shoved onto a store shelf or fill our daily email folders with promises of free shipping.

The pope has released his volume on the birth of Jesus.  CNN was all a-twitter last week.  It seems that His Holiness believes that the ox and the donkey are additions, and the date is wrong, and the angels didn’t sing anything, they just said the words, like a click tape for a rock star concert.  (But as my grandpa would say, “Vere you der, Charlie?”)  Still, it’s refreshing to note that the pope is up to about 1965 with his biblical research…

As I would tell my class, how would anyone know there weren’t an ox and an ass present?  It’s just as likely that they were.  They’re the kind of animals one would expect in a stable, especially that stable if one had read Isaiah 1:3.  I’m less confident about the collie dog that the shepherds brought along according to the plaster figure set I bought piece by humble piece over the years back in New Mexico when I was 10 (and 11 and 12).  But everybody knows that angels sing.  Especially in choirs.   (Actually, I’m surprised that the pope conceded that there were angels (in the sky?) at all: most savvy scholars think they are textual add-ons to drive the messianic point home.  Very imaginative, those old Jews.)

It may even snow….

The Borgia Pope and the Dominican Friar

Some distortion of history may be tolerable in the case of great art.  Certainly Shakespeare did not scruple to bend fact to the requirements of immortal drama.  It remains the case that Brutus killed Caesar, not the other way around.  Truth stretches only so far.

In the case of the running TV production of The Borgias, the writers and producers frequently stretch facts beyond recognition, not least in the segments about Girolamo Savonarola, the prophetic preacher and mystic who in fact opposed Alexander VI for several years and paid for it with his life.  But almost every detail in the portrayal of Savonarola’s life and death is wrong, from his religious habit to his manner of execution.  Nor did Savonarola engage in the ordeal of fire as shown.  Challenged, not by Cardinal Borgia, but by the Florentine Franciscans, the ordeal was postponed then cancelled because of rain. It never happened.  Surely a program series that takes justifiable pride in historical verisimilitude in many respects could at least have got the Dominican habit right.

I began to realize how deeply fictionalized the account of Rodrigo Borgia’s papacy had become when Cardinal della Rovere, superbly portrayed by Colm Feore, turns to the Capuchin Franciscans in his bid to unseat the pope.  The Capuchin branch of the Franciscans would not appear for another generation after Borgia’s death.  It may be said that Jeremy Irons also plays the part of the wicked pope with Shakespearean relish.  But his trim, clever, witty even sometimes sympathetic characterization is a far cry from the grossly fat, thuggish brute who bought his way into the papacy and ruled with an iron fist for eleven years.  (His son Juan, by the way, was murdered a year before the execution of Savonarola.)

Anyone interested in the truth of the case could profit by a glance at one of the recent histories of Savonarola such as the two volumes by Lauro Martines, Scourge and Fire (Random House) and Fire in the City (Oxford University Press).

Truth is often the first casualty in politics. When it comes to historical accuracy, the same may be said for entertainment.

Obama’s “Phony Theology”

In the wake of the worst winter storms of recent US history and the likelihood of more to come this spring and summer, as well as clear evidence of increasing global climate change, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum’s denunciation on Feb. 18th of President Obama’s “phony theology” of “radical environmentalism” flies in the face of the Obama administration’s all-too-moderate efforts to protect and preserve the increasingly endangered health of the planet.  It no less conflicts with the teachings of Santorum’s own Catholic Church as well as plain common sense.

To sacrifice long-term benefits, especially the common good of rich and poor alike, on the altar of short-term political and material gain is nothing new and could even be characterized as a solid plank in current Republican Party campaign platforms.  (Let it be said that most Democratic candidates for public office have been ominously quiet about the worsening environmental situation.)  But to challenge environmental stewardship as based on allegedly unbiblical “phony theology” betrays a profound ignorance of the pastoral letter on “Global Climate Change” of the US Bishops Conference in 2001 and statements of several regional episcopal gatherings from more than a decade earlier.  It ignores the statements of Pope John Paul II and repeated exhortations by Pope Benedict XVI, not to mention many dozens of books and articles by mainstream theologians and biblical scholars.

If by some weird concatenation of events, Mr. Santorum were to become president, the world might in fact witness a catastrophic reversal of the remaining theologically sound pro-environmental initiatives that have managed to survive the rusty knives of Washington’s wealthy corporate lobbyists and politicians.

The library of authentic Catholic teaching on environmental stewardship is extensive and growing.  Having taught courses in environmental theology for many years, I will be happy to supply Mr. Santorum with a hefty bibliography – if indeed he reads standard theology at all.

No, Mr. Santorum, President Obama’s “theology” is neither extreme nor phony.  But yours seems to be.

Annie’s Psalm

The death of Anne McCaffrey on Monday at the age of 85 was a great loss to her family, friends, colleagues, and the millions of fans (generations of them) who were devoted to her Dragonriders books and other works.  She was a remarkable woman because of her talent as a captivating story-teller, but especially as a friend, mother, and irrepressibly wonderful human being.  They don’t come much better.

The following is a brief reflection I was asked to give at her service on Saturday, Nov. 26 in Ireland.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Psalm 23:1-6

The Lord was her shepherd.  No one else could have gotten away with it so long.  If she did occasionally want — it was her own amazing generosity that led to it.  A couple of times, she asked me for a short term cash loan because she has literally given away every coin in her purse.  An authentic Christian, she also preferred anonymity, and I know that in making some truly heroic donations, she insisted on not letting the left hand know what the right was doing.

Although they became home to a collection of remarkable horses, dogs, and cats, her pastures were always green.  On the other hand, the waters around her were not always still, in fact rarely, but with a guiding hand, she sometimes seemed to walk on them.  Her faith was not little.

Annie had a way of choosing the road not taken, which today is perhaps too often the path of righteousness, but she would be the first to guffaw at the suggestion.  She was the least hypocritical of women, but hated even the semblance of evil.  She didn’t fear it, but often railed against it.  Nevertheless, she was not always a strict judge of human character because she preferred to believe that people were more righteous than in fact they were.  When she was cheated, it hurt, but it failed to make her bitter, or lessen her faith in human decency.

Even so, I’m sure she’s had a few words with God about his staff, who did not always comfort her as much as they should have, but it’s sometimes hard even for God to get good staff these days.  I was chuffed to say the least when back in 1981, she did not find me totally wanting but invited me back to Dragonhold as a kind of an occasional Weyr chaplain.  We sometimes even talked about religion, the Church, and, yes, God.  Several times I helped her with exasperated fans who wanted religion on Pern, but when after her Sis’ death Annie introduced a religious element in a short story she was working on, her daughter Gigi and I calmed the waters a bit, lest she appear to go overboard.  She could be very enthusiastic.

Annie didn’t always wait for God to prepare a table in the presence of anyone, much less enemies — if she had any; she got there first.  And if her cup occasionally overflowed a little with good Chardonnay, it was more often the cup of kindness and mercy that made her blessed with family, friends, colleagues, and that strange cloud of witnesses called “fans,” over 3 million of whom have now tapped into Google about the death of the Dragonlady of Pern, who has found a lasting dwelling place not only in the Lord’s house but in those millions and millions of hearts.

Ireland versus Rome

On Wednesday, July 13, the Irish government finally released the “Cloyne Report” from the commission investigating claims of child sexual abuse and the subsequent cover-up in one of Ireland’s largest dioceses.  The former Archbishop of Cloyne, John McGee (a career Vatican bureaucrat and former personal secretary to Popes Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II,) was eventually forced to resign his see in March 2010, after two years of voluble resistance.  The 400-page report details what many of the faithful in the Cork diocese already knew — that McGee and others in the diocesan curia had persistently and willfully failed to implement child protection policies mandated by the Vatican while protecting priests accused of molesting children.  Worse, this was done with the apparent connivance of the Vatican itself, which in a statement of bewildering double-think claimed that the stringent guidelines issued by the Irish church and followed carefully in many dioceses were merely “a study guide.”  On top of it all, it is clear that McGee lied to state authorities when he claimed that the diocese had reported all cases of sex abuse as required by law and the Church’s own mandates.

The fallout from the revelations has been dire.  McGee himself is in hiding and his vicar general, Msgr. Denis O’Callaghan, now in retirement, has expressed remorse for his gross mishandling of the situation.  There have been calls in the Irish parliament for the expulsion of the papal nuncio, whose contributions during the crisis have been negligible if not actually obfuscating, and it is likely that the proposed papal visit to Ireland next year will be canceled.  In a further move against clerical abuse of privilege, legislation is pending that will make it a crime for priests to withhold any information about sex abuse, even if revealed in confession.  This is a Rubicon almost unthinkable in a Catholic country, much less a civilized one in which at the very least professional confidentiality is more than a label.  The proposal is, on the other hand, eloquent testimony to the depth of the loss of faith in the institutional church on this island if not to the success of elementary catechesis.

Ireland will remain a Catholic nation insofar as the vast majority of its citizens will still indicate on official forms that they are members of the Roman Catholic Church. People will still go to church.  Thousands of pilgrims will flock to Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday in July, thousands more to St. Patrick’s Purgatory on Station Island during the year, and of course the shrine at Knock will remain popular among native Irish and tourists. But like France, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba, Ireland will very likely remain Catholic with a difference for a long time to come.

Two Faces of Northern Ireland

The new Star of County Down is without question 22-year-old Rory McIlroy, whose stunning victory at the U.S. Open Golf Championships at Bethesda was duly celebrated when he returned triumphantly to his home town, called appropriately enough, Holywood (only one L, but pronounced the same).  The second youngest winner in history, McIlroy is only a year older than Bobby Jones, the legendary amateur who won in 1923.  And he follows last year’s winner, also from Northern Ireland, Graeme McDowell.

In all the hullabaloo, little was said about McIlroy’s religion. A Catholic boy reared in a largely Protestant area of Ireland, McIlroy is about as far as one can get from the rock-throwing, clenched-fist, angry young Catholics of East Belfast.  Those were in evidence just two days after the US Open, following a surprising outburst of  Unionist violence at the beginning of what is traditionally known as “the marching season,” several weeks in late June and July during which the Orange Order repeats to the extent allowed by law (and then some) the Protestant victory over the Catholic supporters of  James II and the Battle of the Boyne.  That was in 1690, but from the force of feeling still evidence in bonfires and the banging of giant drums as marchers parade through Catholic neighborhoods, it could have been last year.

After several years of relative peace, the violence caught most people by surprise as Catholic homes were targeted with paint bombs and bricks.  When the police moved in, their vehicles were set alight and the riot commenced.  Nationalist “dissidents” were quick to respond.  Eventually shots were fired, but although a reporter was wounded in the leg, no one was killed –this time.

Talks between Unionist and Nationalist leaders restored a measure of calm to East Belfast.  But the marching season has barely begun.  The weeks’ unsettling disturbances obscured for a time the joy and rightful pride of County Down, but McIlroy’s achievement will far outlast the sad images of sectarian conflict in the north.  Please God, his will be the face of a new Northern Ireland.