Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Church

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St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The Catholic Church is arguably the largest church and curator of art in the worlds - both old and new. They include acquisitions accumulated over millennia, the crown jewels of which reside within the Vatican City. St. Peter's Basilica (SPB) is breathtaking with its soaring ceilings decorated in mosaic murals and larger than life, marble statuary. The Vatican Musei is filled with tapestries, paintings, carvings and curios to delight and enchant. Collected from every continent save Australia and Antartica, one could argue few were spared the sticky fingers, sleight of hand, and long reach of the Catholic Church.
Egyptian Obelisk
While the unmatched pillars of St. Peter's Basilica point to different quarries, they also tell the tale of booty, the pillage and plunder of other temples. Egyptian obelisks are the smooth, vertical stone columns that taper as they rise to a pyramidal top. Some are intricately carved, others are smooth as glass. Rome contains more obelisks than all of Egypt. They stand in silent testament to the human cost, carnage, enslavement and suffering of others.

Bernini's David - Borghese Galleria
 The coveting Cardinal Borghese (nephew of Pope Paul V) used position and power to take what he desired. Extortion and death were his modus operandi; trust blood was shed in the conveyance of his priestly duties. He used church tithings to commission and “acquire” works for his personal pleasure.
This tale was recounted at the gallery  -  "Pope Paul V willingly assisted his nephew's efforts to obtain the art works that aroused his interest. Through the influence of his uncle, Borghese secured the cooperation of the parish priest in arranging to have Raphael's famous Deposition stolen from the Baglioni family chapel in San Francesco, Perugia, for which it had been commissioned a century before." 1 When the chapel in San Francesco protested, Cardinal Borghese sent them copies - not one but two. The original Raphael however, remains in the Borghese collection.
The Villa Borghese was built to house his collection and continues to do so as a enviable, modern day museum. Perverse justice prevailed later as the family was forced to sell part of the collection for pennies on the Lira during the Napoleanic Wars. When Napoleon was defeated the art was not returned because justifiably, it had been sold not stolen. Some Borghese pieces must now be enjoyed in the Louvre.

Michelangelo's David - Musei Academia
The Medici family rose to power as merchants in Florence. Their family spawned two Popes and countless Cardinals. They too amassed great fortune and wealth through powerful and papal position. The family held sway over Florentine politic for hundreds of years. The last known Medici was a barren woman who bequeathed the family fortune to the city of Florence with two stipulations barring the sale and/or movement of their treasures. So the extensive collection now occupies every square inch of the four-story Galleria degli Uffizi, for all to enjoy.

Its difficult for me to reconcile the opulence and splendor of The Church with the squalor of the tithing peasant. I thought the same two years ago when visiting the lavish churches of northern Europe. Of these private art collections amassed by The Church; some works were commissioned, many were taken by force, coercion and extortion. It's difficult to stand in awe and overlook the human cost of these collected works. 
Michelangelo's Pietá. SPB, Vatican City
At the same time, I acknowledge we must thank the Catholic Church for patronizing the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, Caravaggio and more. Without patronage these masters may not have nurtured their proclivity or perfected their craft to produce in abundance. Had the Catholic Church not subsumed the “pagans” and their Pantheon, it would surely have been dismantled for parts.

One of my friends asked if I was spiritually moved by my Vatican tour. Sadly, for many reasons, I was not. It was easy to admire the work of the Masters, relishing their gifts and simultaneously difficult to dismiss the Church’s many means of acquisition.  One can point to the times - that is how it was. We too, after all, are not without sin. Some of our own founding-fathers owned slaves and treated them harshly. We can hardly judge them or the Roman Catholic Church by today’s standard. But what of more modern and continued abuses of power?

What of the Nun run mother-baby homes in Ireland: thousands of babies sold, and unmarked mass graves?2
Today, a headline would read: Nuns Trafficking Children to US.
   What of the double perpetration of pedophilia within The Catholic Church - the physical perpetration and subsequent denial and protection of perpetrators lasting decades? I laughed heartily when, in the early years, a papal spokesman had the audacity to call it “an American problem”. (I confess I resorted to obscene name calling; perhaps including even his mother and horse.)
What of the Bishop of Bling Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany accused of renovating his residence and other church buildings to the opulent tune of €38,500,000 (almost $43 mil) in 2013?3 (To his credit, Pope Francis acted swiftly, dismissing Bishop Elst and preaching against a Roman Catholic Church hierarchy he accused of being "overly insular and too often led by narcissists." Bravo! But I ask; has the power structure within The Catholic Church changed?

Lest I sound completely disgusted and cynical, I harken to a recent conversation with one of my youth pastors. Pastor Grant retired last year. We sat on a lanai just yards from the pounding surf of Oahu's north shore and discussed my absolute disillusionment with organized religion.
"Christ was very inclusive," I said, "And my experience of the church is not. Each sect harbors exclusionary criteria and their own special brand of we're going to heaven and you're not. It’s tribalism, pretty ironic and downright hypocritical. And how does one follow a doctrine when there is evidence of atrocities, secreted by leadership, that continues into the modern day?”
Wise man he, Pastor Grant spoke of the organization of the church versus the good people that comprise the Body of Christ - a distinction I found helpful. Admittedly, there are good and faithful people who are the flesh, blood  and bone of every church. That being said, doctrine that excludes, dismisses and diminishes others is not my cuppa and I believe is against Christ’s own teachings. And aren’t those offending nuns, priests, bishops, cardinals and Popes also part of the Body of Christ?

What is the practical application of one’s spiritual beliefs? How do we live consistent with our inner faith - and do we? Do I?
Am I kind and compassionate? Or do I use harsh words and knowingly cause upset? Am I thoughtful? Do I treat others with respect and dignity? Do I allow for their world view and self expression - even if it differs from my own? Do I apologize when I hurt others? Do my loves feel loved or judged?

In his book Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren draws you toward a way of living that looks beyond the "us/them" paradigm to the blessed and ancient paradox of “we." He rates ‘orthopraxy’ (right behavior) over ‘orthodoxy’ (right thinking).4 Ah - me likey! The Chinese extol 'wu wei' (right action).

As I point fingers and cast aspersions at The Church, I notice the three fingers pointing back at me and think…
My support of Roe v Wade and a woman’s right to choose is perhaps ultimately no different than the cruelty of nuns in Ireland’s mother-baby homes albeit justifiable by todays standard. While I do not consider myself a single issue voter, when it comes to Roe v Wade - I am. I will defend a woman’s right to choose every - single - time.

Not every woman wants to be a mother. Not every man wants to be a father. Because we can (for which their is GREAT societal and biological pressure) does not mean we should. 
Societal inequities are unjustly foisted upon mothers. Did you know that on average, women earn 79 cents to a man's dollar. But mothers earn only 73 cents. And according to the National Women's Law Center (with numbers drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau): "Compared to white, non-Hispanic men, mothers of color fare even worse: African-American mothers make 53 cents and Latina mothers 47 cents compared to white, non-Hispanic fathers.” Not that the reasons to remain childless are economic - though they could be; and why not? Who are we to judge? Why should we foist motherhood upon those who don’t want it?
Women spend decades and 3/4 of their reproductive lives avoiding pregnancy. By age 45, more than 1/2 of all American women experience an unwanted pregnancy.5
“It wouldn’t force them to be mothers,” says a male friend, vehemently opposed to abortion. “It would force them to give birth.” And then what of the unwanted child and the rise, yet again, of backstreet abortions? Its a very complicated issue; I don’t pretend to have answers.

As an aside - during his highly entertaining albeit offensive (meant in every definition of the word) campaign, Donald Trump said to a breastfeeding mom “You’re disgusting.” Really Donald? With two words, he demonstrates his disdain for women, mothers, and his absolute cluelessness to the commitment of mothers to get them and their “screaming babies” to his rallies. Rather than applaud their Herculean efforts on his behalf; he derides and ousts them. Bigly interesting; donchya think? But I digress.

I am not childless by choice though I am infinitely happy in my circumstance. (Sometimes this seems important to disclose as I have felt judged for my childlessness.) Oh - you’re one of those women who chose career over family. How selfish. 
I am a barren woman - it seems we comprise about 10% of all women - and form what Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) calls the Aunty Brigade. I like being part of the Aunty Brigade, it has afforded me many opportunities. And Aunty Brigade is a far more powerful context than blaming, shaming, even amputating a woman’s hands, no less, for a barren womb.
Then why do I support Roe v Wade? Because notice that in all societies, women are the primary parent, they raise the children. I think they should have a say in the matter. Men certainly do. We have a long history of valuing the lives of men over women and we are at the tip of the iceberg in understanding what it means for women to have full authority and autonomy over their bodies and lives.

The Last Supper tapestry, Musei Vatican.
Having just returned from the Sistine Chapel and standing in awe before Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, I admit my take on Roe v Wade may be flawed. Yet, I am immovable, implacable, entrenched and happy to remain so.
I recognize the harshness with which I judge organized religion and the Roman Catholic Church, and I appreciate my dilemma. Its an uncomfortable place. Hence - I write. I write to disentangle, to unpack and pull apart. I write to examine its parts and hope to find clarity. I write to understand - as if knowing will make a difference.

Ultimately, I see that my likely path is to accept that - this too, is so.