In Search of Christianity Lost

Michael Gallagher

Despite the possibility that what a deranged Vladimir Putin planned as a small war against Ukraine could morph into a nuclear catastrophe capable of engulfing us all, the United States is still the most warlike nation on earth.

Wars don’t come cheap these days, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the only truly non-partisan issue in Congress is the Pentagon budget. Democrats and Republicans alike, neither of whom expect to get shot at, vie with one another to show how resolute they are in keeping America strong no matter what the cost, even in human lives, though preferably those of foreigners.

The Pentagon budget, now creeping toward $800 billion, is more than three times that of China, our closest rival, a country that had the effrontery to build an aircraft carrier of its very own to challenge our eleven.  The generosity of Congress enriches people who in the 1930s were stigmatized as “merchants of death,” but the latter have since learned the value of public relations.  America’s military-industrial complex, as might be expected, led the way in recruiting the very best PR talent.  The war to liberate Kuwait (Desert Storm) came to us thanks in part to the creativity of Hill & Knowlton (known in the trade as the Torture Lobby).  Wars have persisted even as critical domestic problems continue to go unaddressed, such as American school children suffering brain damage due to lead-contaminated drinking water.

There is something immoral about all this. To be fair, the Catholic Church in the United States, for which morality is presumed to be a major concern despite some very public failings, does take notice of war now and then.  Or rather it used to.  It hasn’t done so lately.

The United States Council of Catholic Bishops meets twice a year, which you’d think would give a troubled bishop the opportunity to call into question the morality of much of what our armed forces have been up to.  But you’d think wrong.  Successive cliques of ill-educated, narrow-focused reactionaries—Burke, Gomez, Lori, Cordileone, Kurtz, and Dolan the most prominent among the current crop—have succeeded in keeping the topic of war off the agenda for more than thirty years.  Nor have they seemed to have had much trouble doing so.

Recently, however, two bishops have spoken up in their own dioceses.  Bishop Stowe of Lexington and Archbishop Wester of Santa Fe have pleasantly surprised Catholics like me by issuing pastoral letters calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, my pleasure is diminished by the realization that such efforts, however welcome, will do little to stave off a nuclear Armageddon after which, in the words of Nikita Khrushchev, the living will envy the dead.

The Vatican—even during the imperious reign of John Paul II, whose attention was fixed upon restoring freedom to his native land (which is now on the road to dictatorship)—has been forever calling for nuclear disarmament.  But how has it called?  In what tone of voice?  That’s the key question.

Forty years ago, and far too long after the nuclear massacres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—atrocities that the Catholic Church in America, like its government, has yet to condemn—the bishops of the United States, prodded, I’m sure, by Ronald Reagan’s missile-rattling rhetoric, surprised everybody by announcing that they were going to prepare a pastoral letter on war.

The deliberations of the committee, headed by Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, got off on the wrong foot when Bernardin was forced to announce at the first meeting that they were by no means to condemn the possession of nuclear weapons, an edict from Rome that slammed the door in the face of the Holy Spirit, whose guidance they presumably would be imploring. 

But the bishops labored on and brought forth “The Challenge of Peace.”  It was a good but compromised document. Not compromised enough, however, for John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.  After the first draft was scrutinized in Rome, Bernardin and Archbishop John Roach, chairman of the U.S. Council of Bishops, were called on the carpet in Rome to defend it to the “NATO bishops” (a Vatican dicastery previously unknown to me), who were more concerned about a Soviet armor thrust through the Fulda Gap than anything that Jesus might have said.

Bernardin and Roach duly met with their critics, and the NATO bishops came away content.  The concessions were major. One, for example, was purging a declaration of “no first use” of nuclear weapons in response to an attack with conventional weapons.  The first draft had not done anything quite so bold. It merely proposed that any circumstances in which a first use would be morally acceptable would be difficult to imagine.  Well: Ratzinger and the NATO bishops had no problem imagining one. 

When the final version of The Challenge of Peace came out in May of 1983, the Pentagon, which had been a bit worried, and hawks everywhere—especially devout Catholic hawks like William F. Buckley Jr—breathed a sigh of relief.  It was obvious to all who cared to read it that the bishops had waffled.  With all due modesty—well, some anyway—the title of a subsequent article of mine in Commonweal, “Sidestepping The Challenge of Peace,” summed it up.  (Commonweal disagreed with me, and still does, but that’s another story.)

Whatever the case, the Peace Pastoral is gone and forgotten, a failure that casts a pall to this day over subsequent (and toothless) Vatican statements on how nice peace is and how bad war is.

What do I want the Church to do?  Let me quote somebody else, somebody who answered that question far better than I ever could.   

In 1948 the Dominicans of Paris invited Albert Camus to address them about what he and other non-believers wanted to hear from the Catholic Church in the wake of the horrors of World War II, their hope being that they could unite to confront the horrors that yet impended. 

Camus, who described himself and others like him as “isolated individuals,” was quite willing to challenge the Church. He did not share the beliefs of the Dominicans, he said, but neither did he dismiss them.  He recounted how during the war he, even as a non-believer, had looked to Rome.  He wanted to hear a “great voice” raised to condemn the monstrous evil of the war, but he failed to hear it.  There were those who said that they had heard it, but what little the world heard from Rome was the Church speaking in what he dismissed, not without cause, as its “encyclical voice,” a form of speech that was prolix, abstract, and devoid of inspiration for all those not attuned to it.  (The word “Jew,” incidentally, did not make the cut.)

The Dominicans wanted to know what the world expects of Christians.  He gave them his answer:

What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out loud and clear and proclaim their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man.  Christians must get away from abstraction and confront the bloodstained face that history has taken on today. 

And what happens, Camus went on to ask, if Christianity doesn’t rise to the challenge?  And here Camus shows a prescience that eludes the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops.  For it was a question quite pertinent to our own era, marked as it is by empty churches and tepid bishops.

If Christianity does turn away from the challenge, Camus told the Dominicans, 

Christianity will lose once and for all the virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago. In that case self-proclaimed Christians may still be among us, but Christianity itself will die, and world will suffer greatly for its loss.

In the spirit of Camus, here’s my recommendations.  However reluctant our bishops might be to confront the blood-stained face of history, they could make a start by talking to people who know more than they do and have experienced more than they have.

In his book The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg, working for RAND, tells how he was shocked to see an unguarded fighter plane on the tarmac armed with a nuclear bomb.  (This was more than 60 years ago, but even today nuclear surety remains less than sure.). A drunken pilot could jump into the cockpit and be off to Beijing to set off World War III just like that.  In any case, Ellsberg took the opportunity to place his hand on the bomb and feel the heat of radiation.  I’m sure he would be happy to share his feelings at the next USCCB conference if invited.

Then there’s Bishop Botean, who leads the Romanian eastern rite Church in the United States.  He’s the only Catholic bishop who issued a letter condemning the Iraq invasion, calling it an unjust war in which Catholics may in nowise participate.  If the USCCB was willing to hear what he had to say, it would give some of the disgruntled brethren an opportunity to ask what prompted him to be such a spoilsport. 

There’s also Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and veteran of the Vietnam war, who is the head of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.  He’s a conservative Catholic who is a severe critic of American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. 

Finally, Archbishop Wester had the grace to praise the late Sr. Megan Rice who appeared on the front page of the New York Times after, at age 82, invading the Holy of Holies of nuclear weaponry in Oakridge, Tennessee.  The USCCB could follow up on the incredible feat that she and her two companions carried off by recognizing and commending the Plowshares Movement, founded by the Berrigans, a group of heroic men and women who have borne witness against nuclear weapons and suffered greatly for it.  They have heeded Jesus’ command to shout what he taught them from the rooftops, instead of keeping their mouths shut about anything that might disturb major donors.  (Those big churches and episcopal palaces aren’t going to maintain themselves!)  

The bishops have much to learn from talking to people like the ones I’ve listed here.  They might even learn to denounce the abomination of genocidal nuclear weapons—and especially any idea that a “first use” policy of the same is in any way morally defensible. 

Michael Gallagher served as a paratrooper during the Korean War.  His book on Catholic activists, Laws of Heaven, won the National Jesuit Book Award in theology, and his translation of Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow was a finalist for a National Book Award.

15 thoughts on “In Search of Christianity Lost

  1. One of the Beatitudes is ‘Blessed are the Peace Makers for THEY shall be called the Children of God.’

    Where are they with the Children of War on the ascendancy? They’re banned from the MSM with all the War Propaganda, no dissenting voices allowed.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Abstractions are always the best avenue for authoritarians lacking respect for the individual, and organized religion has led it’s followers into the hell of theState via the necessary hierarchy-uncleG becomes the omnipotent omniscient force in life, supplanting spiritual ideology for subjective interests. Fuzzy mind, fuzzy emotions, fuzzy identity, fuzzy culture.

    I’m not a Christian, but I have respect for the traditions of others-they can bring me more in line with my own, to paraphrase the Hagakure-and on those occasions when I join my folks at the Lutheran church that’s part of their lives, I bristle at the statement ‘praying for our leaders’, which should be revised to something like ‘praying for more empathy from our elected servants’ or even better ‘pray for the arrogant clown-fondlers trying to take us all deeper into the abyss’.

    Reflection has become rare, but projection is the swinging stick hoisting another flag.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Much has been made of the “put Christ back in Christmas” meme. How about putting the teachings of Jesus Christ back into Christianity? Otherwise, what’s the point?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. So well said, yet so succinctly (I’d have required far more space). …

      Being vocally very angry and callously cruel, some ‘Christians’ make bad, if not contradictory, examples of Jesus’s fundamental message of compassion and charity, especially to the young and impressionable. At the very least, there needs to be more Christ-like Christians publicly speaking out against the un-Christ-like conduct of much of (what I call) institutional Christianity – in particular those who insist upon loudly declaring that God hates this or that group of people.

      All scripture was written by human beings who unwittingly created God’s nature in their own fallible and often-enough angry, vengeful image. Sadly, too many of today’s institutional Christians believe and/or vocally behave likewise.

      I, a believer in Christ’s unmistakable miracles, therefor can imagine many ‘Christians’ likely finding inconvenient, if not annoying, trying to reconcile the conspicuous inconsistency in the fundamental nature of the New Testament’s Jesus with the wrathful, vengeful and even jealous nature of the Old Testament’s Creator. [Personally, I like to picture Jesus enjoying a belly-shaking laugh over a good joke with his disciples, now and then.]

      While he was no pushover, Jesus still was about compassion and charity. He clearly would not tolerate the accumulation of tens of billions of dollars by individual people — especially while so many others go hungry and homeless.

      But when a public person openly supports a guaranteed minimum income, he/she is nevertheless deemed communist/socialist, atheistic and therefore somehow evil by many institutional Christians. This, while Christ’s teachings epitomise the primary component of socialism — do not hoard morbidly superfluous wealth in the midst of poverty. To me, that truly is upside-down Christianity.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The 1st Century Christians living closest to the Time when Jesus walked through Occupied Palestine, is recorded in Acts of the Apostles.

        And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
        And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
        Acts 2:49-50

        And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.
        Acts 4:32

        Jesus went even further with the record of the workers bringing in the Harvest at the End of the World, where the labours who worked only 1 hour, were paid the same as the workers who agreed to work all day long, as described in Matthew 20.

        Fundamentally, those Literal words from the Bible describe God led Communism, Centuries ahead of the Communist Manifesto brought out in the 19th Century after Christ, when Marx, seeing the gross economic inequality between the Nobility and the Masses in 1850 London, wrote it after seeing the verses cited above in his Bible.

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  4. Martin Luther King Jr. put the Bible to great use. His inclusion of it in his speeches demanded respect from any Christian. Like any outstanding preacher, he made Christianity relevant to the present and put his life at risk on the streets. He was the outstanding American public intellectual of the 20th century. There had been theologians before him who made real contributions to the conversation on modernity, but I’m afraid I can’t name any active today.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Father James Groppi of Milwaukee was a prominent civil rights activist in The Sixties, but soon found that neither Holy Mother Church nor “The Man” were much more tolerant of a “turbulent priest” than Henry II.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. IN SEARCH OF CHRISTIANITY LOST

    Who has believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?
    For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he has no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
    He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

    Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
    But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

    All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
    He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.

    He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
    And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.

    Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief: when you shall make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
    He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
    Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he has poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

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  7. “We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.”
    ― Christopher Hitchens

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That Hitchens! It’s fair to say there is plenty of evidence to suggest faith can lead to all those things, but so too can lack of faith. I don’t think lack of religion necessarily makes people nicer, more generous, and smarter. Though perhaps someone like Hitchens thinks so because that view favors his conceit?

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    1. Bertrand Russell was wrong on that point as much as I admired his philosophy.
      Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
      Matthew 10:16

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  8. ‘Is This Russian Propaganda? Notes From The Edge Of The Narrative Matrix’

    We’re risking a very fast, very radioactive World War 3 to defend the “democracy” of a nation whose government bans opposition parties, imprisons political opponents, shuts down opposition media, and takes all its orders from Washington due to a US-backed coup in 2014.

    “Defending Ukrainian democracy” makes as much sense as “Defending Mongolian seaports”.

    The powers responsible for destroying Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen are the same powers we’re trusting to carefully navigate extremely delicate nuclear brinkmanship escalations without ending the world.

    “Relax, nobody’s gonna start a nuclear war” is a belief that is premised upon the assumption that the empire which laid waste those nations, while destroying our environment and making everyone crazy and miserable, is competent enough to walk that precarious and unpredictable tightrope……………….

    https://caitlinjohnstone.substack.com/p/is-this-russian-propaganda-notes

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  9. On the subject of Christianity lost, this is an exposure of how UN-Christian the nominally Christian Nations have become.

    ‘The Racist Double Standard in War Coverage’
    Journalists reporting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could not help but make comparisons to recent conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan. But a painful double standard quickly emerged inside of those comparisons.

    The scenes are gravely familiar to anyone familiar with the 21st century news cycle: families fleeing on foot, swarming border crossings and searching through rubble for loved ones. Journalists reporting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could not help but compare the military strikes and resulting humanitarian crisis to recent conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan…………………

    https://portside.org/2022-03-04/racist-double-standard-war-coverage

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