Monday, April 21, 2003

You know what one phrase instantly makes me ready to be offended?

"I don't hate Catholics."

This is usually immediately followed by "...I just hate [their beliefs/their traditions/their way of life/my stereotypical view of x element of being Catholic]. I love the people, I hate [x]."

Very offensive. There was a survey done of media about 6 years ago now by an ecumenical group that investigated religious bigotry. What religious group is most discriminated against? Catholics, hands down. From cartoons to oped pieces to sitcom plots Catholics were portrayed negatively and the Catholic faith system fared worse. And the more orthodox (i.e., faithful to Catholic belief) the characters were, the more negative the portrayal.

This is no news to Catholics, especially the devout. As a recent convert to Christianity at all, I am constantly appalled. I know a man who would never utter a racial slur who refers to Catholics as "idiots" (as in "I saw the pope and his idiots on TV today. Must have been a few thousand idiots at that rally!" "That was a public mass, 'Bob'"). I know a manager that fired a sales rep for using the phrase "I jewed them down" but goes out of his way to tell offensive Catholic 'jokes' to the Catholics that work for him. His boss didn't understand what I was upset about, either. And I know a college student with a 'celebrate diversity' sticker on his car that "...doesn't think the anti-christ [he means the Pope] should be allowed in the UN".

And let us not discuss the portrayal of Catholics in movies or (please no!) television. Let's just agree that as far as TV writers are concerned Catholics are either evil or the village idiot.

So why is this permitted? Why do professors who teach diversity feel free to call the Catholic Church evil? Why do TV shows that would never dare portray gays, Jews, or Asians in a negative or stereotypical light consistently portray Catholics as ignorant, repressed hicks (or morally corrupt villains)? And why is the portrayal of Catholicism in the popular media so mistaken, so error-ridden, and so flat-out wrong that even many Catholics have seriously flawed concepts as to what the Church actually teaches and believes? If your documentary on the Discovery Channel claimed that Jews controlled all moneylending in Renaissance England you'd lose your job as producer for not fact-checking (although Jews were moneylenders in that period of English history, the Italians were dominant). Yet I saw a documentary on that same channel proclaim that the Catholic Church sold indulgences as "forgiveness of sins in return for money" - a 'fact' so well established that 'everyone knows its true'.

And, naturally, it isn't. Indulgences were not a forgiveness of sin in return for money. What they were is more complicated. In Catholic theology confession of your sins to God (in the presence of the priest, the representative of both God and the members of the Church) God then forgives you sins. BUT, there is a penance, as well. The penance is a 'payment' made by the forgiven to expiate, or puge the effects, of the sin. For example, if I stole $5 from my Mom when I was 12 years old and then confessed, my penance might be to replay the $5 and to give $5 to charity to teach me that money isn't everything, that giving is more important, etc. Of if I had committed adultery my penance might consist of months of prayer and reflection, working with the poor, and parayer with my wife to ingrain in me the importance of my family, my love for my wife, and how adultery corrodes my character as a life of deceit.

Some penances, especially in the Euope of the 1300-1600's, were pretty hardcore. Like a pilgrimage from Paris to Vienna. On foot. In Winter. Or 1 hour of constant prayer every day for 3 years. This is where indulfences entered the picture. In certain areas Bishops of the Church announced that certain charitible causes were innately beneficial; thus, giving money to these causes would help expiate the effects of sin. So, if you gave x amount of money to, say, building a hospital or feeding the poor in a famine-ridden area you were counted as having done some certain level of other penance. This was called 'an indulgence from penance' or just an indulgence (the theological explaination of this involves a concept called the Communion of the Saints and the manner in which the Church can determine what is or is not meritorious - don't worry about it too much). And, yes, you could 'buy ahead' on penances that you had not yet been assigned by a priest. However, this did not mean that you were forgiven for sins you had not yet committed. Indeed, many people 'bought ahead' out of simple charity in the concept of 'a good cause is a good cause'.

Did some people misunderstand what indulgences were? Probably, especially among those too poor to purchase them. And were fake indulgences sold by con men? Sure. And were some bishops selling indulgences for things that didn't seem very meritorious? Yup (that is what Luther was most upset about, per his notes. That and all 'works', actually). But $1 billion worth of indulgences wouldn't have forgiven a single sin and the Church never said they would, just that you could substitute giving to certain charities for certain other actions required by your faith.

Of course, understanding this requires time, and some knowledge, and some history - hence, people just repeat the anti-Catholic accusations of certain Protestants without ever checking the facts. And after a few hundred years of this legend being repeated everywhere from Lutheran pulpits to college classrooms I have to convince cradle Catholics that it just ain't so.

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