September 2005

Clerical Failure: Ten Stupid Things Clergy Do to Mess Up Your Church.  By Donald D. Hook. Unlimited Publishing . 220 pages. $14.99.

Donald Hook, a Catholic whose road to Rome took him from Methodism through Episcopalianism with a few other stops along the way, has seen denomination after denomination unravel at the hands of incompetent, vain, and even miscreant clergy. Could the same happen to the Church of Rome?

From his observations, experiences, and studies (Hook is Professor Emeritus at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of over 30 books), Hook has compiled a list of 10 “stupid” things clergy of all denominations and communions do to ruin or foment the ruin of their Churches. “Stupid? You bet,” says Hook. Though he realizes that describing clergymen thus can be jarring to some, Hook says he is not afraid of “offending clergy.” (His brazenness, Hook told the NOR, has prevented reviews of his book even in “conservative” Catholic and Christian publications, which, he says, are “apparently all hung up on ‘offending clergy.’”) Still, Hook hopes his derision will have a salutary effect, as he ultimately implores, “Don’t be stupid, clergy.”

Hook’s list of clergymen’s “stupid” behavior includes failure to criticize divorce, cohabitation, and abortion; failure to criticize the promotion of homosexuality; failure to uphold their denomination’s principles and rules of membership; failure to lead an exemplary personal life; failure to criticize the misbehavior of other clergy; and failure to promote the Christian faith in general.

Regular readers of the NOR will be very familiar with the myriad afflictions besetting Christianity in the West, and especially Catholicism, as a result of clergy’s “messing up”: declining Mass attendance, a vast rejection of traditional Church teaching by the laity, a largely bankrupt moral leadership among the hierarchy, dissension among rank-and-file clergy, pitiful ordination statistics, general confusion on how to engage the world — the list goes on and on.

How did we get to this point? The genesis of the decline, says Hook, is the tampering with the liturgy that, for Catholics, had its advent at Vatican II “with the authorization of the Mass in the vernacular,” up to and including the imposition of “inclusive” language in the Mass. Changes to the liturgy begat further changes not only to the interpretation of doctrine but even to the doctrine itself. Hook observes that “The clergy have been the first to go along with these changes, and the laity slow to follow.”

The novelty of innovation in worship has led to an abrogation of what Hook regards as the “main rights that Christians possess,” namely, “those that assure them of solid doctrine emanating from their church in its worship and from their clergy when dispensing the Word and sacraments.” Clergy enamored with innovation often don’t feel beholden to the rules and laws of their Church, and are therefore usually unable to credibly expound on the veracity and binding nature of those rules and laws. The result is an undereducated, overly sinful laity. This is clergy at its stupidest, Hook would say, for “a clergyman’s job is to support the policies of his national church and/or his parish church…. He is not at liberty to undermine present policy.” Rather, “A conscientious clergyman should speak out in support of his church’s policies even if they should go against his own personal convictions…. If he cannot do this, he should resign. If he will not resign, he should be removed by his superiors.” And for Hook there’s not enough of the latter. He takes the Vatican to task for essentially sitting on its hands while the U.S. media exposed case after case of clergy sex abuse and shed light on a policy shared by a great many U.S. bishops of enabling the offenders by transferring rather than disciplining them.

What is to be done? Hook calls on today’s clergy to “reclaim the moral high ground in everything they say and do,” rather than trying to be “just like other people,” as Hook maintains is their wont. Some of Hook’s solutions may not sit well with traditional Catholics, particularly his call for the Catholic Church to “give serious thought to reinstating married [Catholic] clergy as a buttress against the many human problems of sexuality.” A married priesthood, of course, wouldn’t alleviate the deviant “human problem” of homosexuality.

Hook doesn’t hold out much hope that the restoration of Christianity in the West will be led by the clergy. “What Christians must do,” he suggests, “is reclaim their moral heritage by recapturing their religious institution.” Maybe, Hook says, “the laity can lead the way.” But Hook doesn’t absolve the laity in the process of Christianity’s demise, finding it “equally outrageous” that the laity “could stand by and watch this taking place over a period of years.” Nevertheless, Hook reminds us, “The Christian mission is assigned to everybody no matter of what status.” Of the laity leading the charge, Hook asks: “Do they have the will?”

In assessing the rapid demise of Christianity in the West, Hook believes he has identified the problems, and he has presented some possible solutions. The rest, he might say, is up to us.

- Pieter Vree



The Theology Of "The Passion Of The Christ".  By Monica Migliorino Miller. Alba House. 170 pages. $14.95.

Mel Gibson gave the commencement address at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in 2003, amidst brewing controversy surrounding his now famous film The Passion of the Christ, almost a year before its actual appearance in theaters on Ash Wednesday of 2004. There were bodyguards everywhere and security was tight; threats had apparently been made on Gibson’s life. Truly, when one seeks to do the will of God — more precisely, when an artist like Gibson sets out to create a genuinely devotional work of sacred art — the powers of darkness gather in opposition. But Gibson made his film, which has gone on to spectacular successes on all fronts, except in the profane arena of mainstream Hollywood, and, on that sunny day in early May two years ago, he delivered his commencement address to a throng of graduates, their families, and university faculty.

It was a unique event, dramatically different from all the other dozen-plus commencement addresses I have attended in my capacity as a professor at LMU. Gibson, obviously self-conscious and nervous, spoke to our graduating seniors not of future riches and glory but of the hardships and suffering that life holds in store, and he spoke to them of God, of keeping the Faith, and of his own life in this regard. He spoke of his past, his sins, his wanderings, and then his return to the Faith. He spoke of God’s forgiveness. He spoke of the imperative to stay with God, to keep the Faith.

He delivered his remarkable address against a backdrop of an apparent majority of cynical and condescendingly smiling faculty, and a foreground of, I imagine, largely confused students. But this was about the students’ future, so Gibson’s seeds of faith may, by the grace of God, flower forth some day in profound ways.

His movie similarly stands out as a sign of contradiction vis-à-vis the prevailing genres of Hollywood movies. Here, too, Gibson answered a call to use his gifts in the service of his God and his Faith, and The Passion of the Christ will surely bear abundant spiritual fruit.

The movie defies classification in ordinary cinematographical terms, and it cannot really be judged in comparison even to other films about Christ. It is of an altogether different order. It is a devotional piece and a source for meditation on and contemplation of the Passion of Jesus Christ. And this is the central thesis of the book under review by Miller, a Catholic theologian on the faculty of St. Mary’s College of Madonna University in Orchard Lake, Michigan. Her book is a compactly written and beautifully argued exposition of the theological motifs that permeate Gibson’s magnificent work of devotional art, and is filled with marvelous insights. For example, the following passage: “In The Passion Jesus indeed overcomes the Devil by the pouring out of His blood. Moreover, as His whole body is covered by the wounds of His Passion, Christ literally wears a cloak of blood. On the feast days of martyrs a priest’s liturgical vestments are red. Jesus, in the film, does not simply wear a symbolic color of blood. He wears blood. He is dressed in blood because He is the true priest and the true sacrifice…. Soaked with blood, carrying His cross, Jesus tells Mary, ‘See, Mother, I make all things new.’ This line, adapted from Revelation 21:5, is uttered about half-way through the movie and indeed it is the center, the key to the Gibson film. By His blood Christ makes all things new.”

This book’s effect on me was unexpected: I had imagined that, having seen Gibson’s film and having been spellbound by it, I would find the book to be something along the lines of an analysis, dry in the usual academic sense. Instead, I found a sequence of crystal-clear lectures by a Catholic woman who saw so much more and who is on fire with the zeal to inform others about what Gibson’s film achieves in terms of theology. She delineated surprising details of the film and charted depths I hadn’t realized were present — so much so that I must see it again and witness Gibson’s rendition of the Passion at a more profound level.

Miller has done a wonderful service for all who would watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, whether it be for the first time or not. But those who come to it for the second time after reading the book are in the most enviable position of all.

- Michael Berg





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