Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Clear light of Day

In "Exploring Religious Ethics" today we did three things. We discussed an essay by the one-time head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, defending JP2's many canonizations. We looked at the discussions around the campaign for canonizing our local hero Dorothy Day. And the students led their own discussion about a topic one of them selected. All very interesting!

As far as these students are concerned the Vatican's the Kremlin or the Death Star, so most felt that canonizing Dorothy Day would be coopting, tokenizing, smothering, silencing. Besides, didn't Day famously say Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed that easily? She also apparently said: I loved the Church for Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me. Romano Guardini said the Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from His Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church. Guardini's surely right but of course that doesn't settle the question if the co-founder of The Catholic Worker, pacifist and critic of capitalism, reformed Bohemian repentant of a past abortion and avid churchgoer really was a saint.

The objective question came up, though. Could one be a saint and not know it? Surely! Could one be a saint and not Catholic? Not so clear, at least for Rome (I wondered about "anonymous Christian saints"), but we needn't be bound by Rome. In William James we've encountered a definition of saintliness which doesn't hinge on a holy spirit, and yet suggests that some kind of empirical validation is possible. There's a fact of the matter: some people are categorically different from the rest in a ways appropriately defined as saintlike - it's not just a question of interpretation. Then the question in the case of canonization is as much about the Roman Catholic Church as about the saints whom it certifies - only God makes saints, but does the church recognize all the saints He makes? Instead of absorbing the holy heroes and rubbing off all their interesting edges, might the church not be moved by accommodating a new kind of saint? It's happened before, many a time. The addition of 500 saints needn't mean expansion around a fixed center, but could move the center of gravity of the church.

We didn't talk about the objective possibility of saints in the final section of class, but about something in its way related. The student leading the discussion wanted to talk about the uncertain ethics of "being yourself," which quickly led to questions about public and private, social roles and hypocrisy, the different things which make people happy (including, evidently, murder and bestiality), if and how people change, whether medications estrange you from or allow you to be your self, if God made you the way you are, if some selves are bad, and - something of a relief - whether there is even such a thing as a self at all, and if you could know it. Intense, passionate debate, and more than a semester's worth of good hard questions for ethics.

It was all over the place, that final discussion, but everyone was there.

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