High Toned Mediocrity or I Take Paul Ryan Personally
“If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” James 2:15-16
On Sunday March 12, I attended Eucharist at All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA. I went especially to hear guest preacher, Reza Aslan, the Muslim scholar and author of Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. (Amazon link to book)
Mr. Aslan preached on the Letter of James (James, a First Century Saint for the Twenty-first Century) and he did not disappoint. You can watch his entire homily here.
A few excerpts:
“James’s community referred to itself collectively as “the poor”. That’s right. The very first term to designate the followers of Christ was not “Christian” it was “the poor.”
“So we shouldn’t be surprised by James’s epistle’s overwhelming focus on the poor. What is perhaps a little more surprising is its bitter condemnation of the rich and powerful.
“Now this condemnation of wealth and power may seem extreme but the truth is that James is merely echoing the words of his brother who said “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.” (Luke 6: 24-25)
Let’s be honest; this part of Jesus’s message has never been all that popular. Certainly not with the wealthy and powerful no matter how much they say the love Jesus. Not this part.
How else to explain politicians like Republican congressman Roger Marshall whose rationale for repealing the affordable care act and thus denying health care to millions who could not otherwise afford it, was to shrug and claim, “Like Jesus said, ‘the poor will always be with us.”
“How else to explain religious right leaders like Franklin Graham who justified the president’s Draconian regulations on immigration into the U. S by arguing that, ‘Well, God also does extreme vetting about who he allows to spend eternity with him, so why can’t the U. S. do the same?’ By the way I have a feeling that Franklin Graham is going to be surprised by the nature of God’s extreme vetting.”
On this point I think Pope Francis is correct when he said that “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee, or someone seeking help, or someone who is hungry or thirsty, to toss out someone who is in need of help. . . . It is better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Christian.” (Here’s a link to Pope Francis’s homily.)
In a conversation with a priest friend of mine, he confessed that, while he prays for Donald Trump, he has more difficulty praying for Speaker Paul Ryan. “He should know better,” he insisted with no small amount of sadness.
Ryan should know better. I take Ryan’s behavior personally.
And I’m not the only one.
On March 13, 2017, Father Matthew Fox published “A Priestly Letter to Paul Ryan.”
“As a priest and as your elder,” Fox begins, “I am writing you this letter because I am worried for your soul.” Fox continues at length and with great specificity to call attention to all of the ways (particularly his budget) punish God’s poor and savage the planet.
Father Fox concludes this letter with a strong, uncompromising challenge to Ryan and his very public protestations of faith:
I pray that you may be converted and return to the teachings of Christ and the Church striving to teach in his name very soon. Time is running out for our species and you are in a position of trust and responsibility and leadership in our country at this time. Earn it!
Meanwhile, until you and your party pay attention at last to these basic issues, I as a Christian priest and theologian can only conclude that you are not at all a Catholic or a Christian but just one more hypocrite flaunting your bogus religion on your sleeve to garner more votes and stay in a cushy job while you sell your soul to the Koch brothers and other Wall Street misers. People who don’t have a clue about the “weightier matters of the Law—justice, compassion, good faith!” (Mt. 23:23) that Jesus preached, and who could not care less.
Jesus had something to say about that too, remember? It was strong stuff. He was speaking to you, Paul Ryan, and your fellow politicians when he said: “Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You who are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of corruption. In the same way you appear to people from the outside like good honest men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness….You are the sons of those who murdered the prophets.” (Mt 23.27-28, 31).
I hope and pray that you and your fellow politicians, Mr. Ryan, so beholden to the rich and uber-rich, might heed Jesus’ words. And if not, at least do him the courtesy of not invoking his name to justify your lawlessness.
Sincerely in Christ’s name,
Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox
Three days later, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof published a piece entitled, “And Jesus Said Unto Paul of Ryan.”
Here is just a snippet:
Jesus turned to Pious Paul on his left and said: “Be gone! For I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; and I was sick, and you did not help me.”
“But, Lord,” protested Pious Paul of Ryan, “when did I see you hungry or thirsty or sick and refuse to help you? I drop your name everywhere. And I’m pro-life!”
“Truly, I say to you,” Jesus responded, “as you did not help the homeless, the sick — as you did not help the least of these, you did not help me.”
In April of 2002, Pope John Paul II summoned eight U. S. cardinals to Rome. The occasion for this gathering was the crisis of clergy sexual abuse in the American church.
There was a formal picture taken of this group of men. It was published in a lot of newspapers but I can’t find it. I have found the caption for the photo but the photo itself is no longer available.
Nonetheless, it is burned in my memory. The pontiff, who is so infirm he can barely hold his head up, is robed in white and seated in the center. On either side of him are the American cardinals in their scarlet robes. What is most striking about the photograph is the body language of these “Princes of the Church.” There is nothing princely or adult or even particularly masculine in their bearing.
Their uncomfortable, submissive, hang-dog postures are reminiscent of adolescent boys who have been reprimanded and kept after school. “Can we please go now?” they seem to plead; but they don’t dare look up.
In 1984 James Carroll published a wonderful novel, Prince of Peace.*** In it he describes in vivid detail the culture of the American Catholic seminaries from the end of World War II and into the early 1960’s—the exact period in which these cardinals’ formations as future leaders of the church would have taken place.
Here are a few salient passages—I urge you to read the book; it’s a great read.
“Thousands of young men, beginning at the end of World War Two and continuing through the catholic heyday of the fifties, entered (the seminaries) each year. A huge expansion of facilities was required and the edifice-complex bishops built thousands of schools, churches, and hospitals everywhere in America. It is both an achievement and a revelation that they did so without constructing a single architecturally distinguished building. (pp 119-120)
“What counted for success in the seminary was mastering that peculiar mode of high-toned mediocrity—to be devout but not pious, savvy but not intellectual, athletic but not physical, confident but not arrogant, deferential but not insecure, jocular but not sarcastic, friendly but not intimate with anyone—that developed as the dominant personality type of the American Catholic priest.” (Page 121)
“One of the ways to prevent the emergence of an intellectual or personal excellence in seminaries was to segregate the smartest and generally most promising young men from the rest. Among the diocesan clergy, as opposed to the religious orders like the Jesuits or Paulists*, this actually occurred when top prospects from all over the country were sent for their theological education either to the North American College in Rome or to the Theological College at Catholic University in Washington, D. C. These two theologates produced the ecclesiastical elite from which future American theologians, canon lawyers and bishops were invariably taken, and that fact alone is enough to make one wonder about those places. . . . Training of the leadership was the stated intention of the system, but perhaps its more telling effect on the Church at large was to remove from diocesan institutions the very element, the “leaven” in the metaphor of scripture that might have raised the standard of the whole American parish clergy through the period of its greatest prestige when, ironically, it was about to be put to its greatest test. (Page 123)
“The culture of seminary life required constant insecurity. The rector and faculty nurtured it and students—remember these were all men in their twenties—played into it. It was another of the ways in which the slave-master mentality of priests was inculcated.** By the time a man makes bishop he has spent a lifetime cooperating in his own humiliation, and he can’t understand, now that he’s in a position to humiliate others, why they don’t cooperate, too. (Page 134)
*Pope Francis is a product of the Jesuits whose training is completely different from that of diocesan seminaries. Jesuit formation emphasizes the forsaking of personal ambition. That’s why he’s such a mystery and frustration to the ambitious careerists in the Vatican Curia.
** Thus the pitiful posture of the powerless, reprimanded princes.
What is so tragic about Carroll’s descriptions (and they’re accurate, I bore witness to it) is that the brightest were culled from the flock, whisked off and indoctrinated into a loyalty to the institution of the church, as often as not, at the expense of fidelity to the gospels. From this indoctrination rose a culture of careerism. Careerism creates a kind of “cold war” paranoia where you never know who is loyal, who is watching you or who will betray you. This is deadly for anyone who once idealistically thought of following (as in “Come, follow, me”) Jesus. “No man can serve two masters.” Matthew 6:24
*** Prince of Peace also details the accountability of the American Catholic Church, in particular that of then New York Cardinal Francis Spellman, for the United States involvement in the Vietnam War.
Back to Speaker Ryan: who has better mastered that “peculiar mode of high-toned mediocrity?”
In the middle of an all-too-frequent restless night, it occurred to me that those brilliant, devious super-villains, the Koch Brothers (Lex Luthor has nothing on them) may have taken a cue from the episcopacy of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.
Imagine Kochs’ scouts, trolling college Young Republicans, forever on the lookout for candidates who have the priceless mode of “high-toned mediocrity.” Meet Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Roger Marshall, Mick Mulvaney, and the permanently tonsured Scott Walker, the “Stepford Republicans.”
The disquieting thing about these politicians is that they look so much like the earnest, sexless, newly-ordained assistant pastors that populated Catholic parishes throughout the 50’s and early 60’s. Imagine a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers where the pod people capture the Catholic seminaries of that era. I’d watch it; just not at night and not alone!
Trey Gowdy, Jason Chaffetz, and Ted Cruz, on the other hand, while really creepy, are much more transparent; they all look like alumni of Slytherin House. I know to be wary of them. Am I the only one who wonders if Steve Bannon is Voldemort? It turns out I’m not! Jenny Huggins a writer for the Poteau (Oklahoma) Daily News has written a wonderful article about this very thing.
I had planned to follow this paragraph with an admission of bias: my mother worked in Harry S. Truman’s Independence, MO office which helped see her and her family through the Great Depression and that while I have voted Republican on the rarest of occasions, I am a lifelong Democrat. I was going to acknowledge in the interest of humility that there are Democratic politicians that irritated me; I even planned to name a few.
And then I saw this: Paul Ryan, speaking to Rich Lowry of the National Review: “I’ve been dreaming of this (capping Medicaid) since you and I were drinking out of a keg.” Here are two articles siting this: one from Vanity Fair and another from Mother Jones.
And there it is: Ryan unmasked. F**king middle-aged frat boy! To hell with humility, to hell with being unbiased; I am this close to mounting a campaign to canonize Nancy Pelosi.
Will we continue to vote for the slick, ambitious, mediocre careerists, bought and paid for, like their counterparts in religious hierarchies, or will we rally around the shepherds—the dedicated public servants who have devoted their lives to safeguarding the public trust?
There is, to my mind, nothing more dangerous than an ambitious man with a mediocre mind.
The gender specificity of the previous sentence is intentional.
The operating title of this series of blogs is “Finding God in All Things.” I’ve thought about changing it. Except that I do see God in so many things! At the supermarket, a gentleman at least a decade my senior carefully choosing a tomato; at the sun rising over my deck (after the heavy rains the trees and grass are a breath-taking green); at a giggling baby playing with her mother in the nearby park; in the company of my 102 year-old friend Alice who, after two and a half years in a Medicaid nursing home, greets each day with hope; in the continuing spiritual journey of a friend who is taking enrollment classes in an Episcopal church; and in my beloved friend who, almost midway through her ninth decade, is taking off for a retreat at 9000 feet in snowy Colorado.
I have hope. I have faith. I have gratitude and lots of joy. I have a weird memory which can summon up images of humiliated cardinals from over a decade ago and recollect passages from a novel I haven’t read or thought of in more than thirty years. And I take delight in it!
Speaking during March 1970 in favor of a U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Senator Roman L. Hruska of Nebraska said:
“So what if he is mediocre? There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they? We can’t have all Brandeises, Cardozos, and Frankfurters and stuff like that there.”
P.S. Gotta love the carnation 😉