Turning Catholic

Bobby Jindal, governor of Mississippi, has abandoned devotion to Kali, the Mother of Death and Life, and adopted the way of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. They say it increases his chances of being chosen as vice president by John McCain. They’ve been saying that about Tim Kaine, governor of Virginia, as well. He’s at the top of the VP list for Barack Obama. Sources close to Kaine say one of the things that makes him appealing for this job is that he is a Roman Catholic.

My own belief systems fall somewhere between the Bodhisattva and Brett Hull, so I shouldn’t claim that much insight into this.

But I’m not sure how Jefferson would feel about this. Or Jim Webb, the Democratic senator from Virginia, who has written a nice book recently about the common folk of his home state.

One of the things I first found attractive about Obama is that in his book The Audacity of Hope he showed an ability to grasp how the longest stretches of history grow from a small but significant detail. And he explained the situation Jefferson faced in Virginia regarding religion. There was a strong movement afoot to create a theocracy so that Virginia’s high-church Episcopalians could lock out the Baptists and keep the common folk from rising up and taking over the government (Webb’s clan on the frontier out past the New River). So Jefferson, in a rare instance, followed the cue of the Christ, who pointed out that religion and government were the two faces of a coin and are naturally separate and should remain so. The things of Caesar belonged to Caesar and the things of God belonged to God, so Jefferson demanded likewise that they be separate. Otherwise, it would be like in that Batman movie where the guy has a coin with heads, one on each side: Two Face.

But there is a whole movement afoot today toward Catholicism as a political agenda. The thoughtful political columnist for The Washington Post, Michael Gerson, who was also a speechwriter for George W. Bush, writes that Roman Catholicism is today a main stream of thought in conservative thinking. The most influential political columnist, Bob Novak, born and reared Jewish, has not long ago converted to Catholicism. Jeb Bush, almost certain to run for president in 2012, is a serious Catholic. My mother would call him a “good” Catholic, although the distinction today between a “good” Catholic and just a regular Catholic (or a “lapsed” Catholic) would probably be lost. George W. Bush is widely expected to convert to Catholicism when his tenure as president ends.

My mother would be thrilled. For decades, she prayed for the conversion of the Jews in congregation. My Aunt Nora used to baby-sit for Jewish babies and bring them down to the Catholic Church and surreptitiously baptize them. Maybe Novak was one. But that was in the day when Rose Kennedy, mother of Jack, used to ask, “When are the nice people going to invite us over?” By the “nice” people, she meant the Protestants, and the answer was never.

Joe Kennedy, father of Jack, was not so naïve. Roosevelt had said to him, “This is a Protestant country, and you Jews and Catholics better get used to it.” So they bought their beautiful family compound at Hyannis Port on the Cape because Yankee Protestants refused to sell to Irish Catholics in nearby Cohasset.

The Catholicization of conservatism is a significant turning of events in our time, and in a season when we have seen habeas corpus abandoned like a superstitious tribal talisman and the Constitution shredded for the simplest expedience of politics and religious warfare, this could have long-term consequences.

Nothing could have greater consequences than the traditional leadership represented by conservatives and Republicans today accepting the religion of the Divine Mother as their own, because our historic period began when Elizabeth I — the Virgin Queen, for whom Jefferson’s state was named — did two things. First, she granted charter to 200 billionaires in London to form the East Indian trading company. But the second thing was more important: She outlawed the practice of worshiping the Divine Mother. The two together created the Protestant ethic, the rise of modern-day capitalism, and the British Empire and its secondary derivatives, like the United States.

This action by Elizabeth I is the hallmark of modern times. It is the core moment of awakening history since medieval times. From this came the Enlightenment and the scientific method. This is the journey that Mozart, the greatest of Western visionaries, extrapolated from as the cosmic passage of the European in his opera The Magic Flute, in which the protagonist, who might well have been Jefferson, drops his allegiance to the Queen of the Night (Kali; the third phase of Europe’s Earth Mother as her moon descends to black) and crosses the universe to the Council of Fathers. This is the core and center of Michelangelo’s life work, in which he not only takes the Christ Child — the Divine Child, who represented mankind — out of the Divine Mother’s arms and puts him on the ground in The Madonna of Bruges — “the better to serve his Warrior Pope,” he says in his journals — but in the Sistine Chapel, he casts the Divine Mother aside in disgust. These are our historic beginnings.

I still have a friend with whom I attended Latin Mass as a child; I still talk to her every few days. I can still smell the prayer book from the Latin Mass. Her grandfather and my grandmother were born in the same town in Ireland the second century back, so she still has visual and sensory recollection of the women praying the rosary together in a circle, and so do I. To us, who recall the image of the Divine Mother standing on the world with a dead snake under her feet; and remember the bloody feet of Christ on the cross, the plaster worn through in the musty, cavernous, stone churches in Boston by the embrace and kiss of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, this is an interesting turn of events.

Boston was tribal back then; one was Irish Catholic, Jewish, White Glove Unitarian, etc., as in the movie “Miller’s Crossing.” Politics was virtually a play of single combat warfare between Henry Cabot Lodge and Jack Kennedy; that is, it was political warfare between Protestant Republicans and Irish Catholic Democrats, the largest other tribe in the region, to which all others paid union dues. We in our tribe felt that Jack Kennedy won his day through working-class solidarity and its collective strategies. We, the Irish Catholic majority, between 1880 (or thereabouts) and World War II, had driven the wealthy Protestants down to Texas.

Now their Mexican wives and girlfriends have converted them. My mother would be delighted.

It is interesting that this is occurring at a time when Pope Benedict has reinstated the old forms, and even up here in the bush in northern New England you can once again attend a Latin Mass. I think I am probably the only one, but I see this as a significant and historic turning of events and possibly a harbinger.

A Boston priest once commented that people of my generation who grew up Catholic and Irish left as a generation without hostility or malice; it was just like hanging up and discarding an old coat. But I and a few of my school friends back then felt that we didn’t really leave the church for The Beatles and Joan Baez, but that the church left us when it dropped Latin and instituted the secular forms. Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote that with the Latin Mass all Catholics spoke in the same voice, throughout the world and throughout time and when they abandoned the Latin they broke the circle. He also made the point that with the new Mass the priest faced the people, representing God to the people in an authoritarian posture. In the old form, the priest faced the other way, representing the people to God, as he always had.

Now it has all come back. Interesting as well, perhaps, that back then, all pop culture was concerned with rising, rising, like Michelangelo’s red-haired and muscular Christ, pushing the Divine Mother aside in the Sistine Chapel; rising to space, to the planets, to Pluto, Sirius and beyond as Walt Whitman predicted. (And then, he wrote in Passage to India, “ ... the true son of God would come, singing his songs.”) Today it is all about returning, and in some cases coming back to earth and knowing it as if for the first time. Perhaps this is where we will land. In the same place from which we left.


Visit Mr. Quigley's website at http://quigleyblog.blogspot.com.

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