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Wednesday, January 27, 2010


On January 15, 2010, the altar, sanctuary and sacred space of St. James Church in Chinatown was desecrated by several rock bands that had been, for whatever reason, invited to perform there by the pastor.

When video of the event hit the web, the Catholic blogosphere exploded in outrage. The priest, Father Walter Toneletto, almost immediately apologized, saying he had been misled by the organizers. He avers that he is actually the pastor of another parish, which merged with this one within the last two years, that he "lived downtown" and was unaware of the problem because he went home before the event, that he was deeply sorry, and that others were saying evil things about him.

So, in Christian charity, many people argue that we must accept the priest's word and turn our anger towards the evil men who deceived him.

This may well be true.
However, during the uproar, several questions were left unanswered.

1) The parish has an activity hall. How did the band promoters manage to deceive the pastor into giving the bands access to the sanctuary instead of putting them in the activity hall?

2) "Ah!" one might argue, "The space is such that by giving access to the activity hall, they automatically have access to the sanctuary!" Really?

First, there's no evidence that this is true. Indeed, I would be absolutely shocked to discover that an extensive renovation in 2002 would not include security measures that provide for exactly this kind of lock-off between sanctuary space and activity hall.

Second, the videos of the event (most of them since pulled by the fans who posted them), show the rock bands performing on a stage that appeared to be specially built and adapted to the sacred space, with the wooden supports specifically cut so that the platform projected out over the steps of the sanctuary.

How did such an extension get measured, cut and built unless the priest knew the bands would set up in the sanctuary and around the altar ahead of time? It could be true, but if it is, I must say, these deceivers are really, really expert, because they apparently snuck in, measured the space, pre-fabbed the stage, assembled it and started their shows without the pastor having a clue.

3) Speaking of which, what parish staff, if any, had control of the keys and supervision of the event space all evening long? How did they deceive the parish representatives at the event into going along with it? Who opened up the church, helped out with the organization that night, cleaned up and locked up? Especially if there is no parish staff besides the priests, as the parish bulletins seem to indicate? Or are the pastors at this Manhattan church in the habit of letting keys to the sanctuary float freely among the parishioners? What a curious custom for otherwise suspicious New Yorkers to have!

4) Father Toneletto claims he went downtown to his rectory, and was thus unaware that the event had raged out of control. As it happens, the church is also downtown, less than a block away from his rectory, in fact. Now, it is true that city noise can be impressive, but his rectory is not all that far away, is it?

If he had been called away to a sick parishioner or a dinner or something, that would be understandable. But he shows an amazing disinterest in what happens inside of his own sacred space, doesn't he? How did the band organizers deceive him into displaying this uncharacteristic level of disinterest?

5) Indie events are known for being borderline illegal, as they frequently overflow the permitted occupancy space for fire code and engage in other illegal activity. However, this event had an open bar for an hour and a half before the bands started playing, and was also BYOB. This was advertised on the internet. I've never met a priest who wasn't aware of dram shot law and the legal impact it could have on his church and himself. So, what was on the church fliers advertising the event? The church bulletin? Does the church have a liquor license?

How did the band organizers deceive the priest into allowing, or at least not knowing, about ninety minutes of free alcohol in the back of the church prior to the bands even going on stage?

In the spirit of the ubiquitous CRAP training (Children Really Are Protected) that every parish in the nation now foists on its parishioners, we should learn how such deception is done so it cannot be repeated on other priests, or on the laity, fools that we are. Indeed, training in how to avoid deception by roving bands of juvenile teenagers should probably be required of every volunteer in every parish in the country.

So, if Father Toneletto could describe in exact detail how he was so cleverly deceived, he would go a long way towards helping other priests, and scads of parishioners, avoid this problem.

But there are a couple of further questions:

6) When the news first started gaining steam on the net, nearly a week after the event, someone responded by sending out an e-mail in support of the parish, insisting the event never took place, that it had been canceled before anything actually happened. Who would do such a thing?

Certainly the indie fans aren't that stupid - they were posting video, photo, and blog entries about the event all over the internet afterwards and happy as clams about it. Only someone who never thought about the internet, never accessed the internet, never looked on the internet, would try to send out an e-mail denying the event took place.

7) If you do a search on Walter Toneletto, you'll find that a priest with the same name had been stationed up in Montreal, some years back, and he had a very big reputation for working with the youth. "If we give them space, they will come in and start working," says Tonelotto. "But if we do everything our way, the old way, then they stay out."

Is it the same Father Toneletto?
I don't know.

But I've worked in enough parishes to know that "youth-oriented" pastors are notorious for violating rubrics left and right in the name of "being pastoral." They tend to view the sanctuary as a stage and themselves as performers. Indeed, I once heard a priest with that attitude tell another priest who was vesting to say Mass, "Go break a leg."

Youth-oriented pastors are very big on having everyone gather in the sanctuary and hold hands around the altar while an execrable band plays even more execrable music. I once worked in a diocese run by an archbishop with a very strong orthodox reputation. Yet one of the largest parishes in his diocese held a regular "rock band Mass" once a month, in which the rock band played in the sanctuary during the liturgy, substituting their own self-composed music for the Psalm response.

Even though this was a gross violation of the liturgy, the pastor and the bishop were apparently fine with it. After all, it was "for the youth" (cue tears and violins). As far as I know, it's still going on today, a decade later (and this was not the same diocese, or even the same state, where I heard the "break a leg" comment).

I don't personally think there's any question that Father Toneletto knew full well the bands were going to be in the sanctuary, that there would be beer, that their would be dancing in the aisles. He just never imagined that anyone would videotape it or that the video would end up on the internet.

Once that happened, he was a smart enough priest to realize that the best way out of the situation was to roll over and expose his soft underbelly while proclaiming his ignorance. The constant theme to his responses is, "I was mis-led and people have deliberately mis-represented me to others. I'm the victim here."

The archbishop, having publicly accepted Father Toneletto's version of the events and having studiously ignored the difficult questions surrounding his explanation of deception and deceit, clearly figures the public scandal is enough punishment for the pastor, and is betting the pastor has enough on the ball not to set himself up for another fall like this.

Besides which, the archbishop is new and he presides over New York City, where half the priests are insane, and most of the Catholic population are in various states of formal heresy, promoting abortion, contraception, etc. The American northeast , which has the highest concentration of Catholics in the country, also elects the highest percentage of pro-abort legislators. Father Toneletto is probably one of the more self-limiting of the self-destructive priests the archbishop has in his employ.

So, there's no point in pursuing this situation further. The archbishop has other, more pressing problems to deal with. Can you imagine being a bishop in a diocese where the sacrilege of the altar is one of your less pressing problems? Clearly, however, this problem has pretty much solved itself, so he's moving on. I will too.

Now, am I being uncharitable in reaching these conclusions?
Good Catholics can differ about that.

I don't mind giving someone the Christian charity of the doubt, but I refuse to ignore evidence of culpability that has not been explained away. Ignoring evidence, and admitting an inordinate, indeed, an unjustified, level of "Christian doubt" is part of what allowed the sexual abuse crisis to happen.

Sacrilege is worse then sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse merely offends the body, sacrilege is an attempt to directly offend the august dignity of God Himself. Indeed, sexual abuse involving baptized or otherwise consecrated people is itself a sacrilege, and makes the offense worse. That's why sexual abuse by priests is objectively worse than sexual abuse by school teachers.

Priests are consecrated to God's use in a way that school teachers are not.
When a priest commits sexual offenses, indeed, when even any baptized person commits sexual offenses, he commits sacrilege by the act.

Sanctuaries are consecrated to God's use and the use of the whole people of God.
This level of sacrilege is somewhat equivalent, but worse, than the sexual abuse of all the parishioners simultaneously.

I am glad that the priest has expressed remorse, that he has canceled future events of this kind, that he is holding a prayer vigil of reparation. No matter what his motivation - and I don't doubt that he is sincerely repentant - these are all good things to do.

So, why am I writing this?
I'm posting one last time about this event in order to lay the groundwork for my next post, the contemplation of a larger viewpoint within the Church that is beginning to take shape. I'll write about the exact dimensions of this in the near future.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

An Open Letter to Powerline Blog

To Paul Mirengoff,

Why would you hope that Brit Hume's recommendations to Tiger Woods, namely that Tiger dump Buddhism and become a Christian, be made "privately" next time?

Your entire blog is devoted to public analysis of the best political solutions available to the country and its leaders.

You believe your commentary to be a service, even though there is enormous disagreement among educated people about exactly what constitutes a "best political solution."

Why should the best religious solutions to various problems be any less publicly discussed?

The only reason it would be unnecessary is if there were no "best religious solutions" to various problems. Obviously, that would be true only if religion had no impact on the public sphere, no intrinsic merit. If all religions were the same in its effects, or if every religion and theology were similarly useless, then there would need be no public discussion of which religion is best suited to dealing with various public problems.

However, if various religions DO have intrinsic merit or impact, then it stands to reason that some will be more meritorious than others. Indeed, from your commentary, you seem to hold certain Western religious traditions in much higher esteem than a certain 7th century Middle-Eastern set of religious traditions.

So why should we publicly discuss only the intrinsic merits of various political or economic worldviews, but never publicly discuss the merits of religious worldviews? Especially given that Powerline has already done that?

You are certainly too intelligent to trot out the tired argument that religion starts wars.
Clearly, so do economics and politics. If we cut religion out of the public sphere on those grounds, then economics and politics would likewise be verboten.

You may argue that our country is built on some kind of "church-state" separation.
But again, you know perfectly well that
a) this is nowhere found in the Constitution
b) the person who put forward this theory (Thomas Jefferson) was not present at the framing of the Constitution - indeed, he had to have the document explained to him by James Madison, if I recall correctly. Furthermore, Jefferson was notoriously biased AGAINST various religious tenets, so he's hardly a fair witness to what the Constitutional framers intended in this regard.

You might argue that the country is pragmatically built around these Jeffersonian principles regardless of their Constitutional presence, but even that isn't true, since the legal principles only became firmly enshrined as a result of LBJ's shenanigans to get re-elected and stay re-elected.
These "principles" are arguably less than 50 years old.

Indeed, isn't your commentary against Brit Hume's public endorsement of Christianity itself a kind of religious commentary - the kind of commentary you so detest in others?

Aren't you essentially saying, "I can engage in religious commentary. Namely I can make the religious recommendation that others not publicly recommend a religious belief I don't happen to share."

I hope you're smarter than that.
I also hope you're less hypocritical than that.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Oh, George!

After reading the recent story by the Belleville News-Democrat on Bishop Braxton's requirement that (horrors!) Catholics actually kneel at the consecration, I thought it worthwhile to offer the journalist who wrote the piece a bit of a critique. Here is the exchange:
Mr. Pawlaczyk,

Why did you go to Frank Flinn at Washington University for an opinion on the Catholic practice of kneeling during the Eucharist?

Is Flinn Catholic?
It doesn't look like he is, so what would he know about this issue?

According to the Wash. U. biography at:
Flinn is an adjunct who specializes in church-state relations.
That is, he doesn't necessarily know ANYTHING about liturgy.

Indeed, asking him for an opinion on liturgy is similar to asking a podiatrist about how best to treat a brain tumor, or asking an environmental lawyer to comment on a criminal homicide case.

It verges on malpractice for him to even voice an opinion.
Going to a man like Flinn does not help BND's reputation.

I have a graduate degree in Catholic theology.
I teach religion at the Art Institute of Dallas, Texas.
I have lectured world-wide on various aspects of Catholic theology and liturgy.
I grew up in Belleville Diocese.
I used to deliver the BND, as did every child in our 8-child family.

Say "hey" to Jay Tebbe for me - my brother and I were part of his sales "boy crew" when we took advantage of the demise of the St. Louis paper, lo!, these many years past back when he was in Circulation Department in the late 70's/early 80's.
I attended Althoff high school with his sister.
I'm pretty sure he would remember me.

As a Catholic theologian, I can state without equivocation that :
a) the bishop is perfectly correct to insist on this physical movement in Mass, as it is central to Catholic worship,
b) the priests who oppose the bishop on this matter are not in union with the Catholic Church on this issue,
c) the pastors who have failed to instruct and lead their parishioners on this are not in conformance with the Catholic teaching (orthodoxy) or Catholic worship (orthopraxy).

If you ever need opinion on a point of Catholic theology, I would be happy to provide it. My contact information is below.
The phone number is toll-free.
His answer was rather impressive if tendentious:
Dear Reader,
I am not interested in a person's private religious beliefs. Whether for a newspaper story or anything else.
Flinn has written widely on religion. That's why I went to him and to Father Driscoll at Notre Dame.
I am always looking for an objective point of view, but not necessarily that of a devout Catholic. If Catholicism means that you cannot raise questions that might, and I emphasize might, suggest that the church hierarchy could be wrong, then there is no point in seeking the opinion of a devout Catholic who will not tolerate such questions.
I guess the reason why there was a Reformation is that some Catholics did raise questions. Non Catholics know a lot about the Catholic faith, just as non-brain surgeons may write critically about brain surgery or those who are not Jewish may write authoritatively about Judaism. Or, to put it more bluntly, one not need be a witch to write about paganism.
Thanks for your interest.
George Pawlaczyk
Isn't that nice? Not only is he demonstrating a remarkable support for Protestant theology (rah-rah the Reformation), he also puts it "bluntly, one need not be a witch to write about paganism." I assume that he didn't feel the need to be a Catholic (witch) to write about Catholicism (paganism). I've never seen anyone directly compare Catholicism with witchcraft or paganism unless he were part of a fundamentalist ecclesial community, but here we have a "journalist" for a one of the two major metro newspapers in the St. Louis area making exactly that comparison.

As you may imagine, I felt he had missed the point.

Mr. Pawlaczyk,

When the story is about religion, a person's private religious beliefs
is likely to have bearing on their public statements, yes?

For instance, wouldn't Richard Dawkins' private religious beliefs affect
how he commented on this story?

Same for Christopher Hitchens, yes?

What makes you think Frank Flinn or Father Driscoll would be different?

Why wouldn't THEIR personal religious beliefs, or lack thereof, affect
how they commented on the story?
What makes Flinn's opinion "objective" - especially given that he has no
expertise in liturgy?

What test did Flinn pass for him to be rated "objective"?

Would you be willing to allow me to take the same test, to see if I can
pass as "objective" in your estimation?

Isn't it at least fair to give me a shot at it?

Sir, I was an atheist for over a decade.
What makes you think a devout Catholic would NOT "tolerate such questions?"
I not only tolerate such questions, I enjoy them immensely, and
encourage them from others.

The questions aren't the problem - it's the biased answers you're getting.

Look, I lecture on world religions at the university level.
I've gotten rave reviews from Wiccans, Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics -
you name it.
All of them have taken my classes, all of them agree that I treat their
faiths fairly.

But in order to treat a faith fairly, you have to acknowledge what it
actually TEACHES.
You can't just cherry-pick your quotes to get the predetermined answer
you want.

Every faith has people who claim to be part of it, yet those people
don't actually buy into what the documents of their own faith teach.

I've taught various aspects of theology and religion in general and
Catholic faith in particular since 1997.

I've met very few Catholics who understand the history and theology of
Catholic faith.

I've never met any non-Catholic who really understood what Catholicism
was about.

Indeed, it is exceedingly rare for anyone to even be able to define the
difference between theology and religion, much less the importance, or
lack thereof, of various liturgical beliefs and practices in the various
faith traditions.

I'm not impugning your reporting - you did the best you could.
I'm just pointing out that there are better sources.

For instance, you didn't provide any quotes from experts who supported
the bishop's position.
Certainly such people would not be THAT hard to find, eh?
Or is there NO recognized expert who supports the bishop in this instance?

I am pointing out that there is at least one - me.

I could find others for you if you like, full professors at various
Catholic universities (and not just adjunct professors at non-Catholic
universities). Even a phone call to the USCCB would undoubtedly find
SOMEONE there who supported the bishop.

If you want to report objectively, and I'm sure you do, isn't it fair at
least to include a quote or two from such voices?
But, alas, the idea was more than his little brain could handle...

Dear Reader,
You just cannot base a newspaper story center (sic) on religious beliefs. That would go nowhere and would be a kind of invasion of privacy. You will always believe, I gather, that whatever a bishop says or does in the name of religion is correct, because the Bible or church practice so decrees it. There would be no room for discussion.
That's why reporters like myself avoid discussions of faith. You believe what you believe. And I have my private beliefs.
As for the manner in which Bishop Braxton went about informing his priests to enforce the kneeling rule, that subject is best left to persons who can comment without basing their remarks totally in faith. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is.
If you need more on this, I suggest calling our executive editor Jeff Couch at 618-239-2551. You can feel free to quote any my comments to you when talking with Jeff. Thanks.
George Pawlaczyk
Isn't that quaint? He wants me to PHONE someone and quote him as I please. Phone... When was the last time you PHONED someone to discuss an e-mail conversation? I can't remember ever having done so. I've FORWARDED e-mails on to people. I've entered into and left e-mail discussions, bulletin board discussions, forum discussions, Facebook and Twitter discussions. But PHONED someone about any of these?

No, I don't believe I've done it.
And the man is so backward, he didn't even provide the necessary e-mail address.
He just gave me a PHONE NUMBER. :)


So, I replied to George.

Your story was ABOUT religious belief.
So if you can't base a story on religious belief, why did you write the story?

I'm not asking you to expose the personal religious beliefs of Flinn or Fr. Driscoll.
I'm asking why you were unable to find any experts who discussed the situation in the bishop's favor.
It's not that hard.

Again, I offer my own services as a Catholic professor who teaches world religions at the Art Institute of Dallas.
I have lectured both in the United States and in Europe on various aspects of Catholic theology and liturgy.
I have received rave reviews from Wiccans, Lutherans, Baptists, etc., on my presentation of various faith traditions.
I have written books about Catholic faith that have been critically acclaimed.
I have Belleville ties, having grown up in Belleville, delivered the News-Democrat as a teen, and I was educated largely in the metro area.
I worked with Jay Tebbe back when he was a truck driver, sold BND subscriptions with him in Cahokia, Granite City and the whole east metro area when the second-last St. Louis paper died back in the late-70's.

I offer you balance.

And, George, you gather incorrectly.

Catholics are not fundamentalists.
It is not at all unusual for bishops to be wrong.

Indeed, I have publicly told more than one priest and more than one bishop that he was wrong on various aspects of Catholic theology and praxis. In fact, I run a news website that regularly takes priests and bishops to task. It currently has a headline story about the Cincinnati archdiocese. The story simply documents that what the head of that diocese is saying about liturgy is directly contrary to what Rome says is necessary in regards to the liturgy.

I'm not asking for you to take sides,
I'm not asking for you to delve into anyone's private religious belief.
I'm asking you to give the reader enough information to make a comparison.
I'm pointing out that context is relevant, that the "experts" you chose were not necessarily qualified to comment.
I'm pointing to their public credentials to make that point.
By choosing who to quote, you gave a completely biased context to the Braxton story on kneeling in the Mass.

But George, you DID NOT avoid a discussion of faith with me.
Indeed, from your remarks to me, you obviously believe the Reformation was a good thing.
That means you carry a certain pro-Reformation bias which is necessarily an anti-bishop bias.
It clouds your reporting on matters of Catholic interest and it biased your story.

EVERYBODY has a bias, including you, including your experts, including me.
The point is, you gave a PARTICULAR bias to your story.
You did not attempt to balance it.
You went to at least one unqualified person (Frank Flinn) to get a money quote.

Furthermore, you say you want remarks that are not totally based in faith?
So, you're saying that Fr. Driscoll of Notre Dame is not basing his remarks in faith?
That's a remarkable aspersion to cast on a priest, wouldn't you say?

What have I said that makes you think I would base my remarks "totally in faith"?
As I indicated before, I'd be happy to take any test you want to give me for objectivity.
So far, you seem to have passed judgment on me without actually finding out where I am.

And, given that you are writing a story based PRECISELY on how total faith is supposed to be undertaken by a Catholic, I don't understand your response. How can you write a story about Catholic liturgy - when Catholics believe sacraments and liturgy (not preaching) to be the heart of their Faith - and insist on getting responses which are not "based totally in faith"?

When you go swimming, do you insist on not getting totally wet?
Do you refuse to interview Olympic swimmers because their remarks on the subject would be biased?

Finally, George, this is 2010.
That means we use e-mail, in order to make clear EXACTLY what was and wasn't communicated.
I haven't phoned anyone over this kind of conversation in over a decade.
I don't even own a telephone directory...
Asking me to phone your editor is ludicrous.
You are just perpetuating the stereotype of the "out of touch" journalist.

And, since he seemed no longer interested in the conversation, I forwarded the conversation to the editor, including his little bit about the Reformation and witchcraft, the bit George had conveniently cut out of the last e-mail...

Mr. Couch,

I'm copying you on this e-mail conversation.
George Pawlaczyk seems not to "get it" when it comes to the bias in the article he wrote.
I have offered my services as a university professor to be a resource for him, but he seems to think I'm a raving loon.

Please tell me if I'm crazy, or if George and I are talking past each other.
Please read from the bottom up.

And tell me, is it company policy to refer to someone you have a conversation with as "Dear Reader"?

It seems a bit off-putting, slightly condescending, and certainly silly, if you know the name of the person you are having a discussion with.