When my wife drags me to Mass twice a year — you’ve got your Easter, you’ve got your Christmas — at St. Joseph’s in Bronxville, I page through the church book. It identifies the various Saints days. Today, October 25, for example, is
Saints Crispin and Crispinian Day, which, as any Englishman will tell you, is the day in 1415 of the Battle of Agincourt (about which there is an article in today’s New York Times — “Historians Reassess Battle of Agincourt” — and about which there is a superb book by Juliet Barker — “Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England“). There’s a clip from “Henry V” below.

Flipping through the pages, I noticed something extraordinary. Male saints were generally noted as “Martyrs.” Female saints as “Virgins/Martyrs.” Bringing this to mind was today’s Maureen Dowd column, “The Nuns’ Story.”

    Nuns who took Vatican II as a mandate for reimagining their mission “started to look uppity to an awful lot of bishops and priests and, of course, the Vatican,” said Kenneth Briggs, the author of “Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns.”

    The church enabled rampant pedophilia, but nuns who live in apartments and do social work with ailing gays? Sacrilegious! The pope can wear Serengeti sunglasses and expensive red loafers, but shorter hems for nuns? Disgraceful!

    “It’s a tragedy because nuns are the jewels of the system,” said Bob Bennett, the Washington lawyer who led the church’s lay inquiry into the pedophilia scandal. “I was of the view that if they had been listened to more, some of this stuff wouldn’t have happened.”

    As the Vatican is trying to wall off the “brides of Christ,” Cask of Amontillado style, it is welcoming extreme-right Anglicans into the Catholic Church — the ones who are disgruntled about female priests and openly gay bishops. Il Papa is even willing to bend Rome’s most doggedly held dogma, against married priests — as long as they’re clutching the Anglicans’ Book of Common Prayer.

    “Most of the Anglicans who want to move over to the Catholic Church under this deal are people who have scorned women as priests and have scorned gay people,” Briggs said. “The Vatican doesn’t care that these people are motivated by disdain.”

    The nuns are pushing back a bit, but it’s hard, since the church has decreed that women can’t be adversarial to men. A nun writing in Commonweal as “Sister X” protests, “American women religious are being bullied.”

    She recalls that Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, who heads one of the investigations, moved a meeting at the University of Notre Dame off campus to protest a performance of “The Vagina Monologues.” “It is the rare bishop,” Sister X writes, “who has any real understanding of the lives women actually lead.”

    The church can be flexible, except with women.

I’ve long been ambivalent about the Church. (As a Catholic, we refer to it as just “the” Church.) I was baptized at IHM in Scarsdale (running-related: site of last week’s race), grammar school at ICS in Tuckahoe growing up in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood that bordered Bronxville (which, the old joke goes, integrated when it allowed the Catholics in), high school at Iona Prep, college at Manhattanville. The latter had gone non-sectarian, but it skewed Catholic. Imagine the culture change when I started law school at Columbia.

Being Catholic has long struck me as more a cultural than a religious matter. I’m 3/4 Irish, 1/4 Italian (I’ve added a webcam link to Teglio in the Italian Alps, whence one of my great-grandfathers came to the U.S.) and that mix is typical in these parts. It seems to me that there’s a certain, I don’t know, spirit among those of us raised Catholic. And there seems to be a huge disconnect between Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy. I’ve seen surveys that identify Catholics as among the most-progressive Americans, on political, social, and scientific matters (like, you know, evolution).

Conservative Catholics describe someone like me pejoratively as a “cafeteria Catholic,” picking-and-choosing what I believe. Fair enough. There’s no reason why a doctrinal Catholic should not look askance at someone who rejects the true path, as she sees it, and there is something admirable about the consistency of that view. There’s also something to be said for looking askance at someone who cavalierly treats religious doctrine as a convenience.

Recall my Peter-at-the-Gate story and, non-religious as I am I do recall something about a schism between those believing the Bible requires the mediation of “priests” and those who believe in the value of its direct reading by people (a schism in Islam as well between Shi’ites and Sunnis).

The Church has been a force for tremendous good and for tremendous evil. How many have contracted HIV-AIDS because of the Church’s rule about contraception? Yet how many have been comforted by the efforts of Catholics and Catholic charities here and abroad?

Dowd’s column is on a different level. She bemoans, perhaps chastises the Church is a better way to view it, the hierarchy’s male-centric view. And it saddens me, even if I have long since moved from Church doctrine. To what? I don’t know.

“Henry V”

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