It turns out Saul of Tarsus was converted by a bout of epilepsy, according to a May 11 BBC documentary broadcast. London’s Weekly Telegraph reports, “The documentary . . . challenges the belief that Paul’s conversion was caused by divine intervention by quoting scientists who link religious experience with epilepsy.” It suggests that the apostle’s reference to an ailment that he described as “a thorn in the flesh, which acts as Satan’s messenger to beat me, and keep me from being proud” could be epilepsy.
No doubt this explains why for the past two thousand years epileptics all over the world have had sudden experiences of the presence of the risen Christ and become apostles and missionaries. It also goes a long way toward explaining why Saul’s companion saw and heard inexplicable phenomena.
Some people who actually know something about theology and epilepsy find this explanation of Paul’s conversion problematic, according to the Weekly Telegraph. These people note that the theory has the slight disadvantage of having “no shred of evidence whatsoever” to back it up.
Canon Tom Wright said, “It is a reductionist way of explaining St. Paul’s conversion, and as a theologian I find it offensive that such an idea could be suggested. As someone with a family member who suffers from epilepsy, I also find it personally offensive. This casual use is very dismissive of people who suffer from it.”
Elaine Storkey, another leading Church of England theologian, told the program, “An epileptic fit doesn’t turn someone’s life around. Something else was happening at a much deeper level.”
An even more bizarre theory, suggested by Dr. John Derr, an American earthquake expert, is that Paul could have been struck by a bolt of electromagnetic energy, similar to ball lightning, released by an earthquake.
“Everybody has a prenup. You have to have a prenup. You’ve got to have a prenup. You could be as generous or as sensitive as you want. But you have to have a prenup.”
Thus spake Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Democratic Presidential hopeful John Kerry and heiress to the Heinz ketchup fortune, in the pages of the Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A17760-2003May5.html), illustrating the pathetic quality of the lives of so many of the ruling elites and manufacturers of culture. Prenups (i.e, prenuptial agreements) are for a culture that has put ultimate faith not in love but in law. They are another mark of our irrational faith that punishment and a pound of flesh tomorrow will make up for our rejection of prudence and chastity today. A couple that builds its relationship on a prenup is a couple that should never marry in the first place. There is a fundamental distrust at the heart of the relationship that is poison to real love. How utterly alien to the Catholic vision of marriage as mutual self-donation.
In a generally favorable profile of recent converts to the Catholic faith, the Daily Hampshire Gazette (www.gazettenet.com/05012003/valley_l/5560.htm) winds up with a quote from a new Catholic that inspires us at This Rock to redouble our efforts at apologetics and evangelization, especially among the newly baptized:
“If it’s truly a beneficial religion or belief system—whether it’s Catholicism or Islam or Judaism—it will hopefully make them a better person.”
Now, it is true we live in a pluralist culture, and we affirm the Church’s teaching on religious liberty. In order to mean anything, decisions of faith have to be free decisions. But that is not the same thing as implicitly equating Catholicism with Islam and Judaism. The only reason anything should ever be believed is because it is true. While it may be true that if you are, say, an atheist, becoming a Muslim or a Jew may make you a better person, becoming a Catholic is eminently preferable. Why? Because Catholicism is true.
This is another sample of the strange overlap between consumer culture, heartfelt faith, and muddled thinking that characterizes so much American religiosity, including American Catholic religiosity. On the other hand, it is a happy fact that the validity of our baptism and the love of God do not depend on our ability to think clearly. We are not justified by intellectual works. So we welcome the new convert who said this and pray to the Holy Spirit that he will continue his work, illumining his intellect until he can think more incisively about why he has chosen the Catholic faith and our one Lord.
“We Don’t Do God”
In the Dark Ages, we are told, the Church opposed things like freedom of speech and the right of people to believe as they would. Happily, with the advent of secular society, things are all sweetness and light—so we’re told.
Of course, there is the little problem of freedom of expression if you happen to be a member of the Labour Party in Great Britain. Tony Blair, the prime minister, discovered this recently when a reporter from Vanity Fair magazine tried to asked him about his private religious views.
Journalist David Margolick asked Blair if he shared his religious beliefs with U.S. president George W. Bush. Downing Street director of communication Alistair Campbell, who was listening in on the conversation, asked, “Is he on God?” When Blair confirmed that he was, Campbell, an avowed atheist, said, “We don’t do God. I’m sorry, we don’t do God” (www.ewtn.com/vnews/getstory.asp?number=35783).
Now, in the unenlightened Dark Ages, Thomas Aquinas could state freely and openly that “It would seem God does not exist” and then give some good reasons why this was so. He could then go on to discuss those reasons at length, as well as ten thousand other reasons why his faith appeared to be false, as well as reasons why those reasons were mistaken. More extraordinary, his Church could urge everybody to read Aquinas and ponder all those pro-and-con discussions of the merits of the Catholic faith. But in the free and open culture of modern secular Britain, an atheist solves the problem of opinions that differ from his in a slightly different way: He shuts down anybody who asks a question about religion.
Unnamed Vatican Sources
We at This Rock think the Vatican should just go ahead and create an official Secretariat of Unnamed Vatican Sources to fill the endless need of journalists for information on everything from orbital mind-control laser platforms to Jesuit lizard creatures from space to the latest rumors on the next pope.
Case in point: Busy nameless Vatican sources say, according to somebody named Wayne Madsen (sf.indymedia.org/news/2003/05/1606667.asp), that “the Pope and his closest advisors are . . . concerned that the ultimate acts of evil—the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon—were known in advance by senior Bush administration officials. By permitting the attacks to take their course, there is a perception within the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy that a coup d’etat was implemented, one that gave Bush and his leadership near-dictatorial powers to carry out their agenda.”
Aside from the fact that 9/11 was not the “ultimate act of evil” for any competent Catholic theologian (the Crucifixion earns that dubious accolade), one detects a certain, well, hysteria in Madsen’s remarks. We are warned that, again according to vague “Vatican sources,” the Pope is concerned the Bush is trying to found a “Christian blood cult,” and we are given dark hints about Bush as the Antichrist, such as in this hilarious closing paragraph:
“If one were to believe in the book of Revelation, as the Pope fervently does, he can seek solace in scoring a symbolic victory against the Bush administration. Whether Bush represents a dangerous rightwing ideologue who couples his political fanaticism with a neo-Christian blood cult (as I believe) or he is either the Antichrist or heralds one, the Pope should know he has fought the good battle and has gained the respect and admiration of many non-Catholics around the world.”
We are all for granting the Pope respect and admiration, and we agree he has fought the good fight. Further, we hold no brief for or against George Bush or the good-faith decisions of Catholics on both sides of the question of the justice of the Iraqi war (our field is evangelization and apologetics, not foreign policy). But we also note that if you are going to try to appeal to the pope as your authority for anointing yet another world leader as the Antichrist, you should provide at least one solid piece of documentation and not just vague “Vatican sources,” “journalists close to the Vatican,” and other turnip ghosts.
Rejecting Catholic Teaching but Wanting to Remain Catholic
“I don’t want to be excommunicated, but I decided that you can’t be excommunicated from something you are. And the doctrine of the Church is that we are the Church.”
So said the “Reverend” Judith Heffernan, who can’t seem to make up her mind about whether she’s in or out of the Catholic Church and whether or not she wants to be. Heffernan, who was “ordained” twenty-three years ago by a—wait for it—Jesuit priest before her church, the Community of the Christian Spirit in Philadelphia. In a recent article profiling her, USA Today describes her as “defiant,” an adjective that raises questions about Heffernan’s relationship with the Catholic Church (www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2003-05-03-priests_x.htm). If you are serenely certain that you and the Church are really saying the same thing and, indeed, are the same thing, then why do you need to be “defiant”? If the Catholic Church asserts as unchanging doctrine something with which you flatly disagree, then in what sense do you “believe” in the Church? If the doctrine of the Church is that “we are the Church,” does it therefore follow that it is impossible to ever reject the Church?
Apparently “Reverend” Heffernan hasn’t yet been excommunicated, but we suspect there’s something defective about her understanding of ecclesiology. In the real world of Catholic teaching, you cannot, it is true, erase your baptism and destroy the “mark” it leaves on your soul. But you can cut yourself off from the Catholic communion by willfully rejecting the teachings of the Church.
The truth is that “Reverend” Heffernan is pretending to be a Catholic priest, and apparently she does not know how to cope with that fact that she can’t be. It’s a pity she wasn’t around to explain to Judas Iscariot that he was Church and therefore nothing he could ever do would cut him off from the Church. But then, Judas was more in touch with the reality of what he’d done than are modern schismatics.