Last week, Travis L. Middleton, one of my irritating Catholic critics, wrote that I am “a vindictive ex-priest who bamboozles gullible readers with razzle-dazzle-forked-tongued interpretations of scripture.” Strong language. But I must ask, “Am I?”
Many of us have put aside the religions of our youth. I know Jews who no longer attend synagogue and Muslims who never go back to their mosque. How many Presbyterians are now Methodists and vice versa? And who can count the number of Christians who no longer attend any church at all? That’s just a fact. But are they vindictive? Are they attacking what they used to revere? Why would they? And why would I?
I do not attack Catholicism, despite what Middleton constantly claims. I question it. I have fond memories of all things Catholic. I was born in an Irish Catholic neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Every home on 57th Place was both Catholic and Irish. We all marched to St. Ann’s Church every Sunday morning, the kids running and shouting all the way.
My high school and college years were spent in a monastic seminary, totally immersed in Catholic liturgy and I loved it. Later, I cherished chanting as a monk and serving as a priest and going to Rome to get my doctorate in sacred scripture. Most of all, I loved the man who opened my eyes to the value of questioning, Pope John XXIII. It was John himself and his famous, “Aggiornamento” (open the windows) that set me on my path of discovery.
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I have been on this path ever since. I know my Catholic critics think I am vindictive because the bishop of California condemned me for heresy when I questioned if the two infancy narratives were written as historical documents. My detractors think I want to demean the faith of my Irish ancestors and turn Catholics away from Catholicism, but that’s the last thing I want to do. My columns are not written to bamboozle, but to question.
I feel like a retired general who looks back on his battlefield days and makes informed comments. Just because neither one of us is still on the battlefield should not disqualify our remarks. When the retired general questions our war in Iraq or when I expose the early church’s misogynistic attitude toward women, we are not being vindictive, we are simply voicing our opinions based on long years of experience.
Why do some people feel we’re vindictive? Why are they so angry at our opinions? Why do they bristle when I laugh at religious explanations of natural phenomenon? Was I that way? When I was wearing the roman collar and faced a former Catholic who questioned my faith did I lash out? Did I label his motives as vindictive and evil?
I remember this scene. I was a young priest, traveling to Rome onboard an Italian ocean liner. I was sitting on the top deck reading my book of Psalms when a well-dressed Englishman sat down next to me and began plying me with questions about Matt. 16:18: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” He was not antagonistic, but he was insistent, “How could Jesus talk about a “church” he asked, “when all he knew were synagogues?” I knew the man had been a Catholic and a scholar and when he spoke about the scriptures he knew as much Greek as I did. I tried to defend the Catholic position on that scriptural text as well as the primacy of the papacy, but I didn’t do it very well.
Looking back now, I know I was subconsciously angry. I thought he was just a vindictive ex-Catholic scholar trying to trap a priest in his own scriptures. Perhaps that’s how my Catholic critics feel. It might be how Middleton feels. I can understand that.
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