From National Review:
Some Days I Am Especially Happy to Be a Roman Catholic
Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Donald Trump at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner in New York on October 20, 2016. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
A response to David French’s open letter to Trump’s Evangelical defenders.
We Romanists are, after all, an inviting church, very much for sinners: Come on in, the water is warm, and there’s no need to wear the scarlet letter. Anyway, about David French’s post calling out President Trump’s “Evangelical defenders,” I have some thoughts. From the perspective of those of us who, by reputation, rarely read the Bible, there seems an awful lot of moral points scored by David. Good. But his post was marinated in overwrought sauce, and I’d file it in the category of the perfect being the enemy of the good and all similar stuff.
So I feel moved (if by the Spirit, good; I hope not by my breakfast) to respond with three little points, made by a believer, a sinner, who aspires to the Kingdom of Heaven, who accepts that it is not unto this orb.
One is that David’s take reflects how some quarters of conservatism have been deeply infected by the be-all, end-all of presidential primacy. In all matters. Growing up, when we remarked “holier than the pope” about a guy, it was meant to be a jab (it doesn’t work well any more under Pope Francis!). But now, the once-jab seems more like . . . a definition and even an expectation: We (believers) seem to want more moral guidance, pronouncements, behavior — salvation! — from an American president than we do of the true shepherds of our souls, whether it be the parish priest, the rabbi, the bishop, the minister. Maybe it is because of the clergy’s sub-contracting of its natural earthly responsibilities that we look to elected officials for void-filling? Anyway, yin to yang, as our society politicizes more and all. (My old man: “That S.O.B. would politicize a bowl of cornflakes,” which makes no sense and plenty of sense.) Our centers of faith — in my case, Catholic parishes and diocesan bureaucracies — have relinquished attention to their duties, such as the charitable works of mercy, and have rendered them too unto the Caesar and his regulators.
I stand athwart this nonsense — presidential fetishizing, duty-abandoning — and yell Stop! And I also advise the college of cardinals to remove any American president from the ballot at its next conclave.
Two: We Catholics believe in saints (I know, so do Anglicans and Eastern Christians, but as for the rest of my fraternal Christian sects, I haven’t a clue), and when I get fired from or depart this place, if still breathing, I am going to finally have time to write a book about my favorite ones (saints, not sects). By the way, since I am waxing a tad Counter-Reformational, May 4’s patron saint is John Houghton, a priest and Carthusian hermit, martyred this very day in 1535. Brutally hanged, drawn and quartered — along with Fathers John Haile and Richard Reynolds — as instigated by the fiend Cromwell. Why? Because of Father Houghton’s refusal (he was the first of many, and of them, many too met his horrible fate) to take the oath for the Act of Supremacy, which held the king to be the head of the Church in England.
I find this noteworthy. While I prefer my head of state — and everyone from him to my barber — to be moral, like the Good Martyred Father, I don’t want to designate my king, or president, to be the head of any spiritual institution, or treated as if he needed to be such. You Anglicans grapple with that. (And yes, Vatican City is a “country,” but let’s admit that it is really just a sovereignty to produce collectible stamps and employ silly-looking Swiss Guards.)
Anyway, and I am still on Number Two here, the very first saint is a true deplorable, by Hillary’s standards or by anyone’s, even his own. By tradition, the “first” saint is often claimed to be Stephen, a disciple of Jesus, stoned to death for heresy. But by timing, the first has got to be Saint Dismas, aka “the Good Thief,” the self-admitted criminal (“We have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes”) nailed to a cross alongside Jesus, who assured him — after Dismas professed his faith in Christ’s divinity (“Remember me when you come into your kingdom”) — that “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Boom! Ticket punched. It’s tough maybe for the Christian Pharisees to swallow, but sometimes really good things happen to really bad people, that really bad people can do, and indeed do do (excuse that) really good things, and that as God warned (promised!), the Last can come First, and that we may have a pretty incomplete meaning of what and who “the Last” means. But back to Dismas: The very first guy we know, from God’s own lips, to be assured salvation was a criminal who deserved execution. Yes, the perfect and the good just don’t always align.
Number Three (inspired by Number Two): It wasn’t until two years ago that I first heard the parable of the Unjust Judge (I again concede that many of us papists are of thin proficiency with the Holy Book). David firehoses chapters and verse, which makes me want to duck for cover.
But then there is that nagging parable, and it does nag me. I’m not sure how it slipped by all those years, but it goes like this: A jerk of a judge, a non-believer, finally gives in to a haranguing widow because he cannot stand the thought of more haranguing (which all parents understand). The main point of the parable is obvious, since Jesus explains it: If a jerk will listen to someone with a just complaint, imagine how God will treat you when you ask for His help.
Got it. But there is a secondary and not unimportant point here in the parable: Even jerks are capable of doing good things.
The very existence of the sacrament of penance is a divine admission that all men are sinners.
I am not calling Donald Trump or anyone, besides myself, a jerk. Nor am I discounting the Ten Commandments or my own faith’s ample and detailed catechism about how we are to behave, how our body is a temple, that we are made in the image and likeness . . . but I am saying that justice or righteousness or correctness or however you might want to package something that implies a good and even holy result can be produced by a jerk. And is. Every day, by millions upon millions and who knows, maybe even billions. Jesus whipped the money-changers, but He doesn’t come off as a sanctimonious prig (He left that for the Pharisees), and that’s because He wasn’t. He knew what humanity was, and what individual humans are — His mom aside, each and every one of them a sinner, some much more public with their trespasses than others.
How could He not know, or hold as a reality, that sinners are capable of doing good?
I fear going to Hell for my sins (I pray not), but I won’t be going there because I donated to Donald Trump’s campaign, voted for his election, or support him, conditionally, as has this website and magazine, when he has done right by our beliefs and by our nation. He is not above criticism and condemnation for his actions (who is?), and yep, I wince and cringe at the praise, sometimes shameful, of those folks who when describing the president use language that should be reserved solely for the Second Coming. But I did none, nor do any, of these things as a Roman Catholic. I do them — and, I hope, all my Caesar-rendering things — informed by my faith, which has an inherent forgiving aspect to it, maybe more so than do other branches of Christianity. After all, Catholicism has a formal sacrament of penance, which is obligatory and exists to help all believers regularly cleanse their souls. It’s an obvious thing to say, then, that the sacrament’s very existence is a divine admission that all men are sinners. More obvious: All, if held to certain standards and called to account on them at this very moment, would be unworthy of doing just about anything, whether it be serving as president or cutting my hair.
And I take great exception to that. Both Pete and Tanka, I sit in whoever’s chair is open, do a marvelous job, so there’s no way in You-Know-Where I am looking for a new barber because my current ones may break commandments.
David’s post is serious and deserves a serious, theological toe-to-toe response. I hope it comes. I am not up to that challenge. But I have a piece to speak, and have now spoken it.
I’ll end with a simple prayer: Be merciful to me God, a poor miserable Compartmentalist.