An unnecessary and untoward controversy

Brother Roger Schutz, founder of the Taize Community in France, was one of the great Christian spirits of the 20th century. An ecumenical pioneer, Brother Roger, in the apt words of Cardinal Walter Kasper, promoted an “ecumenism of holiness, that holiness which changes the depths of the soul and which alone leads toward full communion.” Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of spiritual wayfarers have tasted something of that holiness in visiting the ecumenical monastery at Taize. The late John Paul II once described the experience in evocative terms: “One passes through Taize as one passes close to a spring of water.”

Cardinal Kasper’s tribute to Brother Roger took place at his funeral, this past August 23. On August 16, while attending evening prayer at Taize’s Church of the Reconciliation, the 90-year old monk was stabbed to death by a deranged woman, dying almost instantly. One might have hoped that the death of such a great soul would have become an opportunity to ponder a life lived in complete dedication to Christ, and to Christ’s reconciling work in the world.

It was not to be, though, as the New York Times ran a story on Brother Roger’s funeral that launched an unnecessary and untoward controversy. Here is the lead of the Times story: “Brother Roger Schutz pursued many ecumenical dreams in his life, but in death one of them came true. At a Eucharistic service celebrated Tuesday by a Roman Catholic cardinal for Brother Roger, a Swiss Protestant, communion wafers were given to the faithful indiscriminately, regardless of denomination.” The first falsehood here is that Brother Roger believed in open and “indiscriminate” intercommunion, which he did not. The second falsehood is the suggestion that Cardinal Kasper (who presided at the funeral at the request of the Taize Community) distributed holy communion “indiscriminately, regardless of denomination” – which he did not.

But what with the Times’ (ever-increasingly unwarranted) position as the newspaper of record, a controversy was soon raging in the blogosphere and elsewhere, to the point where the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, of which Cardinal Kasper is president, prepared a note for those interested in what had really taken place at Taize on August 23. The note explains that the celebration of Brother Roger’s funeral “followed the usual practice at Taize,” which had developed during the 1970s, in conversation and agreement with the Vatican, “for the singular circumstances” of this ecumenical monastic community and the pilgrims who spend time there. As the note put it, “everything possible is done to ensure that the Eucharist is celebrated in a way that excludes confusion regarding Church membership, or is against the rules in force.”

Since the 1970s, all Eucharistic celebrations at the Church of the Reconciliation at Taize are Catholic liturgies, presided over by priests or bishops. “For those who…cannot or do not wish to receive communion in the Catholic Church, a special arrangement enables them to receive the ‘blessed bread.’ After the Gospel reading…a basket of small pieces of bread is blessed by the celebrant and set on a table next to the altar. At the moment of communion, the distribution of the Eucharist and the distribution of the blessed bread are done in a way that clearly indicates the difference. In this the Orthodox and Easter-rite Catholics recognize their traditional practice of distributing the ‘antirodon,’ namely parts of the altar bread that have not been consecrated. At Brother Roger’s funeral, in accordance with the usual practice at Taize, those present could receive either the consecrated Eucharistic species or the blessed bread.”

The Times’ story suggests that a policy decision was made to give holy communion to non-Catholics at Brother Roger’s funeral. That is simply not true. The suggestion demeaned both the faith of Brother Roger in the Real Presence and the delicacy and integrity with which Taize has tried to live both the truth of the Eucharist and the quest for ecclesial reconciliation. It also set off a wholly unnecessary controversy that would have pained Brother Roger deeply. The Times owes Taize (and Cardinal Kasper) an apology.

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  


Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash