While tooling recently down the expressway, I noticed billboards advertising three separate television programs involving a judge: Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, and Judge Hatchett. As you know, these are only three of many more such shows that fill the airwaves of daytime TV. More to it, almost all of the “reality shows” that have sprung up in the last decade involve some sort of judgment. “Survivor” culminates with a gathering of the tribe and a solemn decision to vote someone off of the program. “Dancing With the Stars” is a fierce competition, presided over by three judges, who objectively assess the performances of celebrity dancer-wannabes. And the premier television show of the past ten years, “American Idol,” features one of the most ruthless and infamous judges ever to appear in the popular culture: Simon Cowell. Finally, even the most casual survey of TV talk shows reveals how central to their success is an act of judgment. Jerry Springer’s audience is presented with some deeply dysfunctional individual, and after sufficient prompting from the host, they erupt in shouts of vociferous disapproval. And Dr. Phil’s show reaches its highpoint when the good doctor bluntly tells some poor couple exactly what is wrong with their marriage and why they have to change their lives radically. There are almost invariably tears of shame and regret.
Perhaps you were startled to learn recently that Pope John Paul II regularly practiced the form of mortification called “taking the discipline,” that is to say, striking his body with a whip. Apparently he hung the disciplinary belt in his closet, along with his vestments, and never failed to take it with him, even when he went on vacation. He also, we learned, sometimes slept on the hardwood floor of his bedroom as an ascetic practice, purposely messing his sheets and blanket in the morning so as not to draw attention to what he had done. I realize that activities such as these can strike many contemporary people as bizarre, perhaps even as the fruit of psychological disorders, complexes, and repressions. Though the author who reported these things did so in order to convince us of John Paul’s sanctity, some today might, because of them, actually think less of the late Pope. I thought that these revelations might be a good occasion to reflect more deeply on the typically Lenten practices of mortification and asceticism.
Just a few weeks ago, Notre Dame theologian Fr. Richard McBrien delivered himself of a sharp critique of the practice of eucharistic adoration, the resurgence of which in the life of the church he bitterly laments. “It is,” he says, “difficult to speak favorably about the devotion today.” His principal argument against eucharistic adoration is that the practice is grounded in naïve and questionable theology which would divorce the eucharist from its proper context within the liturgy. Though adoration might have been understandable in a more primitive time, “now that Catholics are literate and even well-educated, the Mass is in the language of the people…and its rituals relatively easy to understand and follow, there is little or no need for extraneous eucharistic devotions.” McBrien concludes: “eucharistic adoration…is a doctrinal, theological and spiritual step backward.” In short, those who bother to adore the blessed sacrament are (poor things) just not that bright.
Recently I spent five wonderful days in the diocese of Leeds in the Yorkshire district of England. I was the guest of Bishop Arthur Roach, who had invited me to give a series of talks to his priests and lay leadership. While I was in the area, I was taken to see two of the greatest of the English cathedrals, Durham and York, and I was duly impressed by their stateliness and spiritual power. But the York and Durham Cathedrals were not the most beautiful things that I saw on my journey. Bishop Roach took me to the far more modest cathedral of Leeds, led me to the main altar and then invited me to examine a treasure.
These past several weeks, I’ve had to take a number of plane trips, and this meant I’ve had a fair amount of time for reading. I managed to get through a lengthy book that I had been eager to read: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution by Alister McGrath. Dr. McGrath is a professor of theology at Oxford University and one of the most prolific authors on the religious scene today. His latest book is a very readable exploration of the history of the Protestant movement from its origins in the sixteenth century to the present day, as well as a study of the major themes of Protestant thought and practice. In the course of his text, we find rich discussions of Martin Luther’s master idea of justification by grace through faith, and of John Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination, and of the general Protestant option for the primacy of the Word of God. But the issue to which McGrath returns again and again, almost obsessively, is that of authority. Who, for Protestants, finally has the authority to offer the correct interpretation of the Bible?